Erica entered the library and instantly wanted to leave. The cold stone architecture and crowded shelves intimidated her. She felt small and overshadowed, walking towards the foreign aisles with little more poise than a tourist entering a bazaar.
“Can I help you?” the librarian asked, apparently picking up on her hesitation.
“No, thanks,” Erica replied. She didn’t know what she was looking for, anyway. Wasn’t even sure why she’d walked in.
As a kid, Erica hated books. She’d often grown angry at the way the words were stacked together on the pages, black and white and increasingly lifeless, with fewer and fewer pictures in between.
She’d always loved stories, though. Ones told out loud by her friends, ones whispered in the rippling of Arizona heat atop the pavement. Entire chronicles hidden in the passing gaze of strangers. She liked that none of these stories were ever exactly the same. They were flighty, unbound, free.
Erica wandered through the library, perusing titles and running a dainty finger along worn spines. She maneuvered around the few people who stood bent over the back covers of books, dipping their unaccustomed toes into faraway oceans.
She didn’t understand it.
“I wouldn’t go for that one,” someone murmured behind her.
Erica jumped and took another glance at the book where her finger rested. Pale Fire. She’d never heard of it.
“It’s a bit of a snooze fest,” the teenager whispered. His pallid arms clutched a stack of books, topped with The Catcher in the Rye, and he regarded her from behind frighteningly thick lenses.
She nodded, struggling to keep a straight face at his serious demeanor. “Thanks.”
He grinned smugly and wandered off.
Beside Pale Fire, a small, unmarked book caught her eye. It was bound in faded green cloth with a gold vine along the spine. Unlike the other books, this one did not have a sticker or any kind of identification. Curious, Erica pulled it from its place.
The front cover was blank, so she flipped the book open. No author, no publishing information. She turned to the title page, which was yellowed and stiff with age. It read simply:
for the forgotten
Erica frowned and glanced at the first page.
For the kind sons of Cain.
For the sisters of Abel, laid to rest beside the entrance of paradise, under the fiery sword of the cherubim.
Erica thumbed through the book, scanning through entries. Each statement raised more questions than answers.
For the grieving mother who painted her son on the cave wall at Bhimbetka while his blood was still wet on the ground.
For the first man to die in Ashoka’s last war, whose ears rang with fire and fear.
For the boy who charted stars with Galileo, with ink-stains on his young hands and the heavens in his eyes.
She flipped to the end. The last pages of the book were blank, and looked significantly newer. Eventually, she found the last line:
For the woman who sits counting silver coins, waiting for the storm.
Confused, Erica looked around for the bookish teen, but he was nowhere in sight. She tucked the book carefully under her arm and walked to the front desk, where the librarian sat at her computer with a small frown on her face and a large mug of tea in her hand.
“Excuse me,” Erica said softly, “do you have any information about this book?”
The small woman took the book without glancing at Erica. She perused the blank cover and the title page, typed a few things into her computer, and stared up at Erica with a frown.
“It’s not in our database. Where did you find it?”
“On the shelf over there, next to Nabokov.”
The librarian flipped through the book. “Huh. Well, let me catalog it. Then you can check it out if you’d like.”
Erica nearly said no. Instead, she found herself walking to her car minutes later with her first library card and the little green book tucked under her arm, thinking about her sister for the first time in many months.
Danielle used to devour books. There was no other way to describe it, really. Dani fell into worlds of words with the easy gravity of a foal tumbling from the womb. She spent her weekends on the couch, hidden in her books for countless hours.
When they were younger Erica often thought that, if given the choice, Dani would pick a book over her any day. All these years later, she hadn’t exactly been wrong. Dani worked for a publishing company across the country. They rarely spoke.
Erica wondered what her older sister would say to see her utterly spellbound by a book for the first time in her life.
She spent the rest of the day and well into the night curled up in her armchair, flipping through the pages. The last sentence clung to her like blood, the image of the woman and the silver coins filled her dreams.
The next morning, she rose early and took the book with her to work, noting with a satisfied smile how the pale green cover matched her scrubs.
She made her rounds mechanically, smiling at the patients and updating charts with her careful handwriting.
After her lunch break, Erica visited their newest patient, knocking on the open door as she entered the room. Uninspiring paintings of flowers and landscapes hung on the wall. The window was large and displayed a decent view of the sunny sky and distant Arizona mountains, looming over the desert in regal violet hues.
A diminutive woman sat at the chair by the window, laying silver coins out on the sill. She had short white hair that stuck out in odd angles and was humming an unfamiliar tune.
“Ms. Wilson? I’m Erica, one of your nurses.”
The woman didn’t look up from her coins. There was something familiar about her.
“How are you feeling today?” she asked softly.
“Oh, just fine,” the woman replied, watching the window.
Erica smiled. She checked the woman’s blood pressure and refilled her glass of water.
“Are you settling in okay?”
“Yes, thank you. It’s peaceful here.” Ms. Wilson ran her thumb along the edge of a coin contemplatively. “How long have you worked here?”
“My brother Paul was a nurse,” the old woman mused and glanced up at Erica with striking brown eyes. “Well, an army medic and then a nurse.”
“How many siblings do you have?” Erica asked, sorting pills into a little plastic cup.
“Two brothers, both gone now.”
“Were you close with them?”
“For a while,” Ms. Wilson smiled out at the mountains, “but life pulled us apart.”
Erica passed Ms. Wilson her pills and the woman swallowed them without complaint, hardly looking away from the coins on the windowsill.
“I love the smell of rain on the desert.”
Erica froze. “What was that?”
“Rain, dear. I wish it would rain.”
“I do too,” she stuttered. Erica dashed to the break room and pulled the book from her purse. The final sentence hit her like a blow:
For the woman who sits counting silver coins, waiting for the storm.
That night at home, Erica read and reread the last pages of the book. There were names of people killed quietly in wars she’d heard about in the news just days before. There were places she didn’t know existed, but found with a quick google search.
She set the book down with trembling fingers, unable to look away from the blurred pages that brimmed with forgotten lives.
A sudden clap of thunder made her jump. Rain began to pour in thick sheets, and Erica hoped for a moment that Ms. Wilson was awake to enjoy the storm. The scent of dust and sage filled the air.
Erica picked up her phone on a whim and called her sister. It was late and Dani didn’t pick up, so she left a message.
“Hey Dani, just checking in. I’ve been thinking about taking some time off work to visit you. Call me when you get this. I’ll start looking at flights, maybe next month?” Erica picked at the book’s green binding. “Anyway, love you. Bye.”
Flashes of lightning filled the room at irregular intervals while Erica read. She treasured each line, each life, with a reverence she’d never felt before.
The next morning was rain-washed and sparkling. Erica arrived early to work and headed straight through the maze towards Ms. Wilson’s room.
It was empty. A line of silver coins lay on the windowsill, glinting like raindrops in the sunrise.
Erica stepped out into the hallway and flagged down another nurse in dark blue scrubs.
“Where’s Ms. Wilson?” she asked.
“Who?” he glanced at his charts, not recalling the name.
“She was in this room yesterday.”
“Oh,” he said. “She passed away last night.”
Erica turned and walked back into the room, frantically trying to recall the woman’s face, her thin fingers atop the silver coins, the way her white wisps of hair caught the sunlight like fire. Erica knew she should be used to death by now, but she never was, and this death stung more than most.
The other nurse followed her in, face full of concern. “Did you know her?”
“Not really. Have they contacted her family yet?”
He checked his paperwork. “She didn’t have any listed.”
“Oh,” Erica said, and turned away to hide her burning eyes.
He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder for a moment and left her alone.
Erica pulled the book from her bag and held it tightly. She sat in the chair by the window, tears welling at the sight of the coins that shone in the sun.
“I’ll remember you,” she promised.
The next day, Erica called her sister again. They talked for hours about nothing and everything and the little pieces of life in between. She stopped by the library to return for the forgotten, opening it one last time to visit with those whom history left behind.
Erica turned to the back of the book and noted with an unsurprised smile that the final sentence was gone.
She slid the book gently into the book return and tried to picture the people who might hold it in the future, those who held it in the past.
With a silent goodbye, she drove away, clutching at small memories and a single silver coin.