People say I’m a strange kid. They also say I have no social life, but I find all my friends in the books at the public library on Maple Street. No one has ever actually said any of these things to my face, but I hear things. I hear lots of things. Like last week, when the cafeteria ran out of cucumbers for lunch, they cut up zucchinis and said that they were cucumbers. Or like how my older brother failed his math test yesterday, but he doesn’t want to tell our parents because they won’t let him go to the heavy metal concert that he won tickets for on the radio. But the strangest thing I’ve ever heard, the thing that bypasses them all, was at the library yesterday afternoon. I was reading a book, sitting at my usual table right in front of the librarian’s desk. The librarian is a sweet old lady who wears round glasses and knits. But what I heard was not-so-sweet. A kid walked up to her desk to return a book. They were talking for a minute, then she leaned down, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and whispered:
“You better be there, punk! If you know what’s good for you.” Then she just sat back down and went back to knitting a sweater, which I happened to know was for her niece. I was stunned. What did she mean? Where did that kid have to be? I quickly packed up my backpack and went home.
The next day, I arrived at the library bright and early. It opened at nine o’clock, and I was waiting outside at 8:45. As soon as the librarian flipped the sign on the door to “OPEN”, I slipped in and made my way to the back of the library. Once I was safely hidden behind the mystery shelf, I unzipped my backpack. Inside was a black ski mask. I don’t really know what it does to help anything, but it looks cool in the movies. I stashed my bag behind some books and checked to make sure there was no one around me. In fact, there weren’t any people in the entire library, except for a lady with three little kids in tow. Seeing that the coast was clear, I rolled behind a cart filled with books needing to be returned to shelves. I needed to make it to the back office. If there was any evidence of anything, it would be in there.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The voice startled me. I turned around to see the librarian staring at me, hands planted on her hips.
“I’m just, um,” I searched for an easy lie. “I’m looking for a book.”
“Looking for a book, hmm?” she said suspiciously. “On the floor? In front of a cart of children’s books?”
“Mm hmm. It’s a book for my little sister.” I don’t have a little sister.
“You are a terrible liar. Now I would like you to leave my library.” She pointed to the front door. I was so close, but so far. I slowly tramped out of the building. I was already halfway home when I realized that I left my backpack there, buried behind some books.
. . .
The stairs creaked loudly, and it seemed that the slower I went, the louder they were.
“Where are you going?” Mom stood in front of me, her hands on her hips. She was seriously starting to remind me of the librarian, except for the whole ‘You better be there, punk’ thing.
“Um, I’m going out... for a walk?”
“At ten o’clock at night?”
“Yes?” I replied uncertainly. She raised her eyebrows. “I think?”
“Alright. Just don’t be too long.”
Wait a second. She said yes?!
“Oh, uh, okay. Sure.” I stumbled out the front door, and using a flashlight, found my way to the library. There was a light on in the front, so I went around to the back, where I found a window. Right below it was a dumpster. My nose wrinkled as the smell of garbage met me. My hands started sweating as I stepped up onto the dumpster and swung one of my legs around the windowsill. Should I be doing this? Technically, this is breaking and entering. My head was throbbing by now. Just then, my foot slipped, and I fell sideways onto the concrete floor.
“Oof!” I quickly checked to make sure no one had heard me. The room I was in was a little storage closet. When I fell, I had knocked over an empty flower vase, which now sat in pieces on the floor. There was a mop in a bucket in the corner, which smelled like muddy water. I limped to the door; the foot that I fell on hurt, and it was probably starting to swell, although I couldn’t tell in the darkness. I pushed the door open a crack. There were voices coming from somewhere. The door led into a short hallway, and just beyond it was the main part of the library. I quickly ducked behind the same cart that I got caught behind earlier and looked for a way over to where my backpack was stashed. I crawled along the floor to the shelf and pushed aside some books to see my backpack sitting there.
It was then that I looked through the crack in the shelf to see that there were about twenty people in the library. They were all kids, except for the librarian. She was sitting down with her feet propped up on the desk. The kids were sorting books, putting them back on shelves, and one kid was even bringing the librarian a cup of coffee.
“Hey! You!” I froze, thinking she was talking to me, but she was pointing at the kid who had brought her coffee. “This coffee is cold! That will be an extra two hours of labor for you!” The librarian screeched. As the kid walked away with his head down, he passed by the shelf I was hiding behind. I grabbed his arm and pulled him down. He looked up at me and gasped, then gave me a wide-eyed stare.
“What’s going on here?” I demanded. No answer. “Hello?” I waved my hand in front of his face. “Earth to-wait. I don’t know your name. Earth to kid?” He raised his pointer finger and silenced me by putting it in front of his lips.
“Quiet, or she’ll hear you.” He whispered, with that wide-eyed look still on his face.
“Okay.” I whispered back. “So, what’s going on here?”
He looked at me like I’m crazy. “You haven’t heard about the librarian?” I shook my head. “Any kids who return a book late, she forces them to come in for manual labor. You know, sorting books, restocking the shelves, cleaning everything. She just sits there and does nothing. If you mess up, she gives you more time.”
“Woah.” It was the only word I could muster. “How long has this been going on?”
He shrugged “I started last week. Some kids have been here longer than me, some have been here shorter than me.”
This reminded me of a book I’ve read. Something about a school that forces the kids to work all day...
. . .
“Librarian... manual labor... cold coffee...” I murmured, jolting myself awake, and seeing that I am not ducking behind a bookshelf, but sitting at my usual table, my face in an open book. I rubbed my eyes, and when I looked down, I saw that the book was full of drool.
“Excuse me?” I glanced up to see the librarian towering about me. “Do you need any help with that book? It seems you’ve got a little... saliva on it.” She gestured to the page covered with spit.
“You can’t force kids to work for you!” I blurted out.
“Are you okay? Do you need a glass of water?”
I just jumped up and ran to the back of the library, down the hallway and into the storage closet. There, on the floor right in front of me, sat the pieces of a broken vase.