The golden light streaming through the window turned her brown hair bronze as she tucked a gentle curl behind one ear. Faded ink and paper filled my nose and I looked around at the maze of bookshelves. She furrowed her eyebrows slightly in concentration and wrote a title in the log book. Thinking deeply, she doesn’t notice me walk in, though to be fair I had frozen, starstruck, as soon as I entered. I cleared my throat and she whipped her head up, clear green eyes catching me. Her face settles into a smile and she calls, “Can I help you find anything, sir?”
I walked forward and leaned across the library desk, “I don’t suppose you could help me find a date for tonight, ma’am?”
She chirped out a bright laugh, red creeping up along her cheeks as she looked back down at the book logs. My heart melts at the sound and I lean a little further, “So? Will you go out with me?”
She meets my gaze with sudden strength and walks around the desk, passing me and entering into the walls of shelves. I trail behind, watching her walk straight up to a shelf and deftly pull a book off. She holds the thin paperback out to me and I take it, “Melody of the Sea?” I meet her eyes and she nods. “It’s my favorite book. Check it out, read it and when you return it, we may just have to grab some food to discuss it.”
I smile, “It’s a deal.” She turned to return to the front desk but I reached out, my hand grazing hers. “But wait, I don’t even know your name.”
Her eyes linger on the book still in my hands and look back at my face, “You will.”
The golden light of my dream was dashed away as a stark white lightning strike reflected against the walls of the ship’s cabin. The room rocked back and forth as the dark waves outside slammed against the vessel. I squinted at the hands of my watch, two more hours until my shift. Before I can drift off once more, a slight sloshing noise catches my ear and I blindly feel through the bag at my feet, finding a box of matches and striking one. The orange glow bounces off the steadily increasing pool of water leaking through the door from the top deck. I cursed, reaching for my boots and pulling them on. Then I reached underneath my pillow and pulled out the book, faded and spine creased from so many years of reading but the silver title reading, “Melody of the Sea” and the label identifying it as a library book are as clear as ever. I wrap the book in rags and clothes, cushioning it inside my bag and praying the water would not rise any further. Once I was sure it was secure, I pushed open the door, fighting against shoving wind and scrambled up the steps to the deck. Most men would have been quaking in their boots by the sight that met my eyes, for it felt more like a fictitious exaggeration than something that could ever be real. A swirling storm stained the whole night a greenish glow, punctuated by reaching tendrils of lightning, mocking the fragile wood of the ship as each snap seemed to echo closer than the last. Waves like the hand of a giant slapped against the vessel, pulling and pushing until it seemed we were riding sideways upon the waves. Yes, it was a lot, but this was not my first storm. There was only one deckhand manning the ropes and desperately trying to bail the water when possible and I ran to his aid, running with precision across the slippery wood. He glanced back at me as I approached, torrents of rain pouring down his hood.
“You’re early!” I could just barely hear his yell over the roaring storm. “But I’m sure glad you are. Help me get the sails tied down!”
I nodded, grabbing the flailing ropes and bracing them as he tied the knots. Locked in the position, I took in the sight around me and muttered, “How can we claim the moon is but a distant being, glimpses caught in rippled reflections, behind billowed clouds or framed in the faraway sky when her pulling grasp rocks the very seas?”
“What’s that?!” The deckhand pulled at the final knot.
I yelled back, slightly annoyed at being heard, “Just something I read in a book!”
He laughed, “As if you’d ever read something other than a case file!”
Even in the cacophony of the night, my ears filled with the silence between us. No one on the ship was supposed to know I was a secret agent.
The deckhand cursed and spun around, as lightning flashed, his face beneath the hood was illuminated and I could see clearly the black X beneath his eye. He reached into his jacket. Before he could pull out a weapon, I gauged the motion of the waves behind him and knocked loose the ropes tying down the few cargo boxes still on deck. The sudden rock of the ship sent the crates sliding towards him and he slammed against the railing, almost tipping off backward. When he recovered he came at me but whatever weapon he had previously reached for must have been knocked out of his grasp in the collision, now we were on even ground. I was thoroughly soaked at this point, sheets of rain slamming into us but that collision had done me another favor. He was steaming mad, and anger means mistakes. He charged, swinging a punch as he got near enough. I blocked the blow with my arm and returned a punch, knocking him to the side. The boat rocked the other way and we shifted our feet to match the slant as the loose boxes slid back towards us. He wiped blood from his nose and bent down to his boot, pulling out a thin knife. I sighed, waiting for the second attack. He charged again, eyes wild and focused only on me. This time I simply moved to the side and as he turned to watch me, I gave him a shove. His sliding feet hit the boxes and he flipped over the ship’s rail disappearing in the waves below. I ran a hand over my face, taking a moment to taste the wetness of the air.
“Death is many things. Swift and slow, kind and cruel. But let it never be said that he is early or late.” I nodded to my fallen enemy and turned back to the ship, gathering the loose ropes in my hands to tie the boxes back down.
Hours later the storm had nearly dissipated and the glimmers of a sunrise peeked over the wavy horizon. A hand clasped my shoulder and nodded towards the cabin, I climbed down, surveying the storm’s damage. Nothing too bad, the water hadn’t reached the bed. I pulled open the small cupboard on the wall, squinting into the faded mirror. I looked at the grey streaks in my hair, the haggard scruff on my chin and the folds of my skin showing the weight of the world.
What if she didn’t recognize me?
At the time I had returned home from military training, fit and confident and the hope of possibility in my every step. I had also had high expectations of impressing the old highschool sweethearts I had left behind, but that all melted away when I accidently walked into the new library. That night I received immediate selection and transfer to the secret agent branch. They didn’t even let me stay goodbye. I knew I should have left the book somewhere, for someone else to return, but I couldn’t bear it. I spent the next twenty years traveling the world, jumping from one mission to the next, and I couldn’t deny that I loved the work. But now, I was finally headed home. I closed the mirror and fell back onto the bed, trying to catch some sleep before reaching land. “Home,” I whispered. “We search endlessly for it when so often it is already in our grasp.”
I stood at the bow of the ship, watching as we slowly neared the shore, my duffle bag at my feet and “Melody of the Sea” gripped in my hands, I was rereading the chapter where the main character returns to their homeland. Amazing how connected flesh and blood is to ink and paper.
The boat docked and I walked down the gangplank, the sturdiness of the ground a sudden shock to my sea-worn legs. I kept an eye out for any lurking associates of the man on the ship, terrorist groups like the Pirates tended to stick together but I knew they weren’t expecting me. I wasn’t supposed to have left alive. I caught a taxi and told him the address. Forty minutes later I was standing at the door of the library. My stomach was stone and my heart was pounding hard against my chest, I couldn’t remember a time when I was more frightened. How many times had I gone through this in my head, or counted all that could go wrong.
I took a breath and walked in.
There she was. I knew it in a second. Her long hair was pulled up this time, and a strand of white stained the brown. She was a little taller and life had left its mark, but as she looked up I could see her eyes. Eyes that were stronger, smarter, but still had the shine of hope. I walked slowly up to her, noticing the lack of a ring on her finger.
She watched me approach and I searched for any sign of recognition.
“I came to return a book...Melody.”
Her eyes widened and she reached for the book, she read the title and I watched as her hands started to shake. This time she really looked at me, scanning my face and waiting. For an excuse, an explanation, just any reason at all.
I swallowed down my fear and cleared my throat, “For something so strong, the heart is dangerously fragile. Sometimes we leave it in the worst of places. And sometimes we leave them …”
“...exactly where they belong.” Melody finished.
“I know this is asking a lot but, I left my heart here a long time ago and I just need to know, am I too late?”
Melody rubbed her finger across the book and smiled, her clear, green eyes softening, “Love is timeless, it has no boundaries or limitations. Of all the natural forces of the world…”
She waited and a weight lifted off of my chest as I opened my mouth to complete the line.
“...there is nothing more durable than love.”