Content warning - thoughts of suicide
The smile that never reached Alice’s pale-blue eyes held until the library door clicked shut. She resumed organising the returned books into numerical order on the old, wooden trolley and sighed. One more trolley-load and she could slink home, cutting through the village green to avoid the incessant jauntiness of the Fox and Thicket pub. She knew too many people that would be there. Taking in the late afternoon sun, laughing, joking, waving at her to join them.
The thought made her gut clench.
Lurking on Old Saint’s Way, between the moss-covered tombstones of the church graveyard and the quintessential village shop, was Willowdale community library. Alice had worked there for the past year and this Saturday may well be the last. Although, she often told herself so and yet, every Sunday she awoke; hungover, bruised and trembling with wretched self-loathing, but regrettably still alive.
Why didn’t she dive head-first off a roof? That would certainly do it. No. Too messy. Too dramatic. Nathan would want her to go peacefully.
So... slit wrists in the bath? Maybe... but she didn’t want to be found naked either. Her short, raven-black hair bobbing around her scrawny body. Too embarrassing… not that she would know, of course.
What she needed was to drift off quietly, in a self-induced stupor and not feel a thing. Drinking numbed the pain and she hoped that eventually she would have an accident. Perhaps she would stumble, trip and fall, hitting the side of her head on the sharp corner of the living room table or the kitchen counter and bleed to death. No one would know until Monday when she didn’t turn up to pass the hoover and dust the bookshelves, leaving a lemony scent in her wake.
And then it would all be over. The relentless day after day of making small talk and pretending she cared. Of waking up next to crisp, cold bedsheets where his warmth once lay.
This world without Nathan’s cheeky grin and floppy, brown hair was… faded, as if she was looking through the filthy, smudged window of an abandoned shop front. The edges were blurred, voices were muffled through the thick glass and all sustenance became tasteless rubber in her dry mouth.
All colours were a washed-out version of themselves too. Did he steal the colours? Or did he pierce a hole through which the colours drained from this world into his new one?
“Is that the last of them?” the librarian, Deirdre, asked. Her face was traced with gentle lines that belied the nimbleness of her movements. She had always been the Willowdale community librarian… even when Alice was little. How old was she? The faint smell of lavender and mint permanently enshrouded her like a gossamer blanket.
“Yes,” Alice said, tossing the last one on the trolley with a disparaging grunt.
“Hey! What have I told you? Be—”
“Be gentle with the books, I know.”
“I don’t think you do, child,” Deirdre said, picking up the aforementioned book and smoothing the cover as if in apology, “Books have souls, you know… emotions, feelings.”
“Alright, I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t get books like this. I like reading serious books with proper characters and a realistic plot, but this,” she took the offending book out of Deirdre’s hands and turned it over, grimacing at the cover adorned with silver symbols amidst a bewitching haze of green smoke, “I mean, come on! Magic? Dragons? It’s dumb.”
Deirdre gasped and had the book back in her embrace before Alice realised what was happening.
“Don’t speak ill of the books,” she hissed, her tone pricking Alice’s spine like a needle.
Alice resisted the urge to roll her eyes but Deirdre wasn’t fooled. “The books listen, you know,” she said, “And if you listen – really listen – you’ll hear them. Talking to each other, it’s a sort of gentle whispering, fainter than the hush of wind through long grass… but it’s there.”
“I’m sorry,” she said and she meant it. Daft as the old woman was about books, she didn’t want to have an argument with her. She had given her a job after Nathan died when no one else would and never commented when she turned up with red-rimmed, puffy eyes. Not a word.
“Why don’t you go,” Alice said, “I can finish putting these away and lock up. I’ll pop the key in the plant pot.”
Deirdre hesitated for a moment, she seemed to be weighing Alice very carefully and pursed her lips, “Alright, but just remember… the books know more than you realise.”
And with that, she was gone.
Alice breathed, welcoming the eerie silence of the library.
The wooden trolley trundled along the light-brown carpet, its squeaky wheel marking the passage of time. Out of the front windows, a young couple crossed the village green with their arms wrapped around each other. Her chest squeezed painfully but she didn’t cry.
She grabbed the next book.
It was the fantasy novel, encased with magical symbols and entitled “The Lair of Lost Souls”. Nathan had liked this sort of thing. If he was still here, he would badger her to give it a try, but how could she? How could she enjoy anything when he couldn’t?
Better to banish these silly books from her mind altogether.
A sudden hiss made her jump and drop the book.
No answer. She knelt down to retrieve it and froze as the hiss returned, louder and harsher, with distinct words forming out of the sound as if through the static fuzz of a bad telephone connection.
She brought her hand to her forehead as white flecks dotted her vision like the beginnings of a violent snowstorm. The sound built upon itself, encircling her like an angry serpent.
It grew louder and louder until she felt like she was trapped in the eye of a hurricane. Her vision flashed from brilliant white to purest black. Over and over again. White. Black. White. Black.
She hunched over, her hands now clamped over her ears, and squeezed her eyes shut.
When she opened her eyes, she wasn’t in the library anymore.
The air around her shimmered under a blazing desert sun. To her right, sand dunes rolled towards the horizon and on her left, a temple with multiple, thick columns was built into the side of a mountain. She knew it to be a temple as certainly as she knew that she must venture inside its gilded archways.
Her knees and legs were bare with the coarse warm sand shifting under her weight. Alice breathed deep; this place smelt of smoke, of wood-burnt apples and cinnamon. The knowledge that she was inside the book came to her as a simple, irrefutable fact as clear as the azure sky up above.
As she moved to stand, a man approached. Tall and dark-skinned with an unmistakable aura of strength encircling him, not in a dissimilar way to the heat-haze trembling in the air. His name came to her mind. Drexus.
“Rise, Farseeker,” he said, “It is time.”
She rose. Bending slightly to brush the sand from her knees, she realised that she was wearing a short, golden-brown skirt and soft, leather shoes which blended to the shades of sand around her. Her arms were bare and her torso was covered with a light, metal-linked garment – armour? Silver in colour, it flashed in the sunlight as she moved.
“Why do you call me that? Farseeker?”
“It is what we call all that come here,” he said, sounding as though he had said these words many, many times. He turned towards the temple and gestured for her to follow. “Those that come from afar… seeking truth.”
“That… is for you to see.”
She should have known he would be mysterious, being from a book covered in green smoke.
Stone steps led them out of the sands, past gold-traced columns winking in the sun and through the main archway of the temple. Alice could not see what lay ahead, the entrance funnelled into darkness, a tunnel of unknown depths.
A thrill went through her. One her body recognised as an old friend. She had always loved roaming around and discovering new places. She and Nathan had been planning to go travelling together once they had enough money saved up. Before they settled down and started a family... two girls and a boy, that’s what he had wanted. An image of him cradling a newborn babe with his hazel eyes flashed cruelly before her. It was wrong exploring without him but she was sure it would all be over soon.
It must be a dream. A strange, wonderfully exciting dream.
“Who are you, Drexus?”
“I am your guide,” he said, “I will show you the way back to your homeland.”
Alice squinted, there was light somewhere up ahead, a flickering, orange glow. She had lit candles in her living room last night as she wept over photos of Nathan. A half-drunk bottle of vodka nodding at her sympathetically. They had been so happy. Why would she go back?
“This temple,” Drexus said, “It shows different things to different people. Our understanding is that it makes you see what you fear, what you hide away from. We use it as a test of character and resolve.”
“What do I have to do?”
But this was dream, wasn’t it?
“I don’t come from this land, Drexus. If I die, I don’t think I really die.”
“They all say that,” he said. The stone tunnel had brought them to the edge of an immense cavern with more stone steps descending into it. Torches lit the way, ensconced in the walls and on either side of the path. Up ahead was an altar flanked with statues of men and women dressed for battle it seemed, some held spears and others shields. Thick columns were placed strategically, holding the ceiling up.
Everywhere that Alice could see, strewn across their path, jutting out of black rock pools and impaled on random vicious spikes were human skeletons in varying states of decay. The reek of death was only slightly masked by the ever-present smell of cinnamon.
Drexus leaned in, “They were wrong.”
"You didn't guide them back to their homeland."
"I show the way," he said, "It is you who must walk the path."
What was she afraid of? She wanted to die anyway so it didn’t really matter if this dream was deadly.
In the seconds between when their car collided with the truck and Nathan’s life was snuffed out - as unceremoniously as a swatted fly – did he dream? Could he now? No one knows, of course, but she could find out, couldn’t she?
She never spoke to his family. An unseen force sucked any words away before they could be thought of. The truck driver had been drunk but she had still been the one driving their car. Would Nathan’s reflexes have been a fraction quicker than hers?
A low rumble reached her ears, pulling her back from her thoughts.
“What was that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Drexus said. He walked over to the nearest column, placed one hand upon it and frowned.
A flicker of movement caught her eye as something stepped out of the shadows over to their left.
Her entire body jolted. It couldn’t be. That voice.
She turned her head just enough to see who it was and almost choked, “Nathan?”
A tremor passed under her feet.
Drexus tugged at her arm, “Something is wrong, we must leave.”
She shrugged out of his grip and stepped towards Nathan, “Is it really you? Are you… alive here?”
The ground trembled. Drexus’ eyes darted from one column to the next, “We must leave. The cavern is weakening, I think it might collapse.”
“I miss you,” Nathan said. It was him in perfect detail, right down to the slight bend of his big nose and the tiny flecks of brown in his otherwise pure green eyes. His hair flopped just so over his eyes, making him toss it back in one practiced movement.
“I’ve missed you too.”
A roar resounded throughout the cavern.
“FARSEEKER!” Drexus’ thundered, “It’s not real. Whatever you’re seeing, it’s NOT real. We have to go!”
As if to punctuate his words a large slab of rock struck the ground to his right, sending flecks of dirt flying through the air.
“Well then go!” she snapped. She wasn’t going to leave Nathan. She should never have survived the car crash in the first place.
Drexus cursed and turned to flee, his legs a blur across the shuddering cavern floor. Somewhere nearby, another piece of rock crashed to the ground.
Nathan gazed at her with his lop-sided grin, “So, you’ll stay with me?”
“Yes,” she cried, throwing her arms around him. He felt good. She breathed in the scent of him, filling her lungs with it.
“I’m glad you’re staying,” he said, stroking her black hair with his fingers, “It’s not fair that I died and you didn’t.”
“I know… I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t want you to live without me. To be happy in someone else’s arms,” he said, tensing against her, “That would be unbearable.”
The cavern jerked, sending more rock fragments hurtling down around them. But this time, Alice didn’t answer. This wasn’t right. Something in her mind had clicked or unclicked. A bell had been struck but it was ringing in the wrong pitch.
Nathan wouldn’t say that. He wouldn’t want her to die.
She had made a terrible mistake.
Bringing her palms up to his chest, she pushed away from him but a fierce grip on her wrist held her back, his beautiful face twisted into a vehement snarl, “You’re STAYING!”
“NO!” She wrenched at her hand but his fingers were like steel, “You’re not Nathan!” she cried, “He would want me to LIVE!”
A terrible grinding sound gave way to a thunderous boom as one of the columns fell behind them. The earth jolted enough for her to rip her hand away and turning from him, she ran.
Nathan’s screams were quickly overpowered by the imploding cavern. She sped away, dodging pieces of rock, rubble and stone. The toppled column barred her way but she used a mound of fallen earth to elevate herself enough to make a leap, using her left hand to vault herself over.
She did not look back once.
Taking the steps two at a time, she propelled herself into the tunnel. A glint of sunlight was visible ahead, she needed the earth to hold just a few more seconds.
Suddenly, her feet stepped onto nothing. The sliver of white light disappeared as a gap in the earth swallowed her. She tumbled through the void as the temple exploded far above. How long had she been falling?
The blackness deepened until she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed anymore.
Her cheek was pressed up against something hard and rough – was it grass? No. Carpet. Brown carpet. The muskiness of the library filled her nostrils.
She pushed herself up and shook her head, the earthy scent of the cave collapsing around her was also there and a few inches from her hand, lay the book.
Looking down, she was surprised to find herself disappointed at her attire. She thought her desert-garb had been quite fetching in a way. Like an exotic warrior.
After replacing the book – gently – on the shelf, she locked the door and slid the key down the side of the plant pot.
The bizarre dream whirred inside her mind, refusing to be forgotten. Her skin tingled with the remnant of scorching heat, her nose clung to the strange smell of cinnamon and her ears lingered over the sound of Nathan’s voice.
At the village green, she hesitated. The hubbub of voices from the Fox and Thicket beer garden floated down the road, birds twittered in the chestnut trees and the wind rushed through the vibrant, green grass.
She turned towards the voices, her footsteps feeling surer than they had for a long time. She could do this.
Surprised but friendly faces greeted her and much shuffling was made to produce a space for her at a table.
And like a gentle butterfly’s kiss, her smile touched her eyes.
He would have wanted her to live.