The library had been closed for a while.
The window at the back still does not lock properly. Even after all these years, it was never fixed. Can you believe that, Anne? So many renovations, but that shitty lock never changed. It is still easy for me to open it and climb through. I suppose I could have used the front door. The building has been sold, Anne, and guess what? I'm the new owner. But I enter through the window. Old habits.
Shelves, mostly empty, stand waiting for me. They knew I would come. How could I not? There are some old tomes, musty volumes that no one wanted. The rest has been moved to a new building on the corner of Dunce street. The irony of the name is not lost on me. I've seen the place, larger, modern, with computers and air conditioning. That's a good thing, I guess, that a library would still be considered important enough to warrant such a space.
But that place could never be here. Here is where the old magic is.
I walk to your office and push the door open. Your behemoth of a desk, too large for the room, is still there. The tiny cot that was once jammed in the corner has been long gone. I walk around the desk and sit in your chair. I open my bag, pulling out a blanket, worn but still warm, a leather journal, a candle, and a match. I light the candle and watch the flame dance with the shadows around it. I wrap myself in the blanket and settle back in the chair, waiting.
They buried your body on the hill in the cemetery, a lovely spot, as far as cemetery plots go. A nephew of yours chose it. Bought the headstone. Spelled your name wrong. It's all right, Anne, I showed up with paint and corrected it, adding the ever so important 'e' to the end. I would say you could rest easy now, but easy is something you would never choose. Too much like your namesake, I suppose? The same nephew came by today to put flowers on your grave. A lovely gesture. I would have considered it too if I didn't know the truth. Your bones may rest there, in the cold, dark earth, but your spirit dwells here. It always has.
My eyes are closed. I breathe slowly. I count. Ten heartbeats. My eyes open.
You are there.
"Hello, Anne," I say.
Memory drapes the library, heavy and dark. Isn't it strange, Anne, that something like a memory, chemicals and electricity flowing in neurons, could have weight? Could hang gravid, like this blanket, around my shoulders? Could wrap me in a warm fabric, its threads of joy and grief so inextricably woven, it is impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends?
I remember the first day I saw that smile, Anne.
Secret. Knowing. Your Mona Lisa smile. If Mona Lisa was the guardian of hidden worlds and ancient magic. If Mona Lisa had been sizing up Da Vinci, trying to decide if he was a worthy apprentice.
You'd found me huddled in the stacks, asleep, after hours.
I'd muttered something about losing track of time, not hearing you close up, indicating the headphones attached to an ancient walkman. The truth was I had no place else to go.
"Well, I could use some help, assuming you can spare the time," you said, standing there, hands on your hip, dark hair shot through with gray, which you normally kept pulled back in a severe bun, lose and tumbling to your shoulders. Your glasses, which I've never seen you without, were off, hanging from a thin gold chain around your neck. This was the after-hours Anne then, not the severe warden of the library, with the power to silence errant teenagers with a glare, but a Queen of the stacks, ordering her kingdom. And oh, what a kingdom! I had yet to learn.
You'd put a kettle on for tea- laid out sugar and milk-for me really, you took yours black-and biscuits. An old record player, the kind that fits in a small briefcase, kept in the room with the photocopy machine, played songs I'd never heard. Classical things, music without words, or music with words in some foreign language. I helped you shelve books and organize index cards. Wipe sharpie doodles off the tabletops, the scent of ink, aged paper, and wood mingling with lavender cleaner.
You explained the Dewey Decimal System, while I nibbled biscuits, vanilla with thick centres of chocolate or lemon cream. I watched while you poured over some sort of ledger and enter information on an archaic-looking computer.
You'd offered me a ride home when we were done.
I'd waited till your car was out of sight and made my way around to the back of the building. To the window with the shitty lock. In the morning I'd shower at the community swimming pool, change my tee shirt and then head to my minimum wage-temporary-on account of the economy job at the grocery store. In the evening I'd be back though.
I liked the library. I liked reading. I liked learning. Odd, because I had hated school. School was a place that wanted you to fit in, and display how well you did that. Books didn't care if you were an outsider. To them, everyone was. They invited you to disappear into them, to leave behind who you were and dream about who you could become. Learning wasn't a show for them, change not a violation but a willing transformation. It felt natural that I'd stay. That I'd call this place home.
I'd often wondered when you first realized.
Was it the day that the blanket, then brand new, first showed up in your office, under the pretense that you got cold easily? Your office was always conveniently unlocked after hours. As was the small room with the photocopy machine, which became home to a mini-fridge and a microwave. You got hungry when you worked late, you said. Tea and biscuits were not sustenance for the work you did.
A cot appeared.
You got tired lately. You sometimes needed to lie down.
Your fatigue got worse around the time I lost my job at the grocery. You needed an assistant you said. You didn't have time to train someone new. You would prefer someone who was already familiar with the library. No, a degree didn't matter. No, you didn't want to know why I lost my job. No, you didn't care that people said I was odd, had strange ideas.
It didn't feel strange to spend my days shelving and cataloguing.
It freed up time, so that our evenings after the library closed could be spent just talking, or reading.
Normal people would go to a coffee shop or a bar after work. I didn't like either place, too many people, the human din too loud, and anyway, we were not normal people. We were kindred spirits, you and I.
I told you my secret. Not the one that you had already figured out. No, I still had my pride, if nothing else. But the other one.
"I want to do this," I had said, one evening. I sat cross legged on the cot, leaning against the wall.
"Do what?" you had asked, looking at me from over your spectacles. They were still on. You were reading Tolstoy that day, or maybe Gogol.
"Write. Make stories."
"You'd be good at it," you said.
I had looked at you with suspicion, sure you were teasing.
"You can't possibly know that," I said.
You'd just given me that smile.
You kept my secret, Anne. Both of them, until I was ready. I'm sorry, Anne, that I did not keep yours.
Memory is a fickle mistress. How bright the inconsequential moments shine in my mind, yet those that portend to greater things sleep behind a veil of shadow. I blame the medication. But it is the price I pay to live in the human world. The library could not be my home forever. Maybe it never really was.
There were moments, Anne, when you thought no one was looking, that I saw you work the old magic. The library closed, the blinds drawn, the world curtained in the darkness of sleep. You would play music. Not the kind you normally did, from the old record player. This one was older, haunting, filled with a yearning for things long turned to dust. You would walk amongst the stacks, like the Queen you were, gently shifting books, moving things, changing things.
I saw them, Anne, in the stacks.
Small creatures with gossamer wings, that trailed magic when they moved. In the morning, it would look like dust, to be swept away and thrown out with the rubbish. But at night, the moonlight revealed it for what it was. The power danced around them, glittering like dew drops under a pale dawn. I heard their voices too, singing softly as you passed the books, speaking to you from the endless portals of distant worlds.
In some versions of my memory Anne, I had discovered this secret, the things that came to life in the library after it was closed, on my own. In other versions, you had told me of this other world. I like that version best. In that version we had tea with Queens of Fey and danced with Jinn Princes. Once the doors were closed and the sun set, you worked your magic and the library transformed. Ivy would swallow the walls, twisting it into a secret garden full of sprites. On colder nights, the walls would crystalize into a palace of shimmering ice. Soldiers made of silver moon beams would march outside our window, guarding jewels that were grown in the heart of the stars themselves.
Being the custodian to these beings and these realms took its toll on you. I remember, Anne, how tired you got, a fatigue that even with my help, you could not overcome. You lost weight. Lots of it. You spent time in and out of the hospital.
I told you I would come back, Anne. To help. I should not have left.
I no longer lived in the library then. I had written things. Sold things. Made money. Enough to have a place of my own.
I should have been stronger, Anne. Better. An apprentice worthy of you.
Cancer, you told me, over the phone. You stopped responding to treatment. You wanted to tell me in person, you said, when you visited. But time had other plans.
I begged you Anne, to use the old magic to heal yourself. But you didn't want to. You didn't want the world to know your secret.
So I did it, Anne.
I told them. Told the world. I wrote about it. You, the library, everything. It made me famous Anne.
For a while, I was swept up in that fame. It became my drug, a beautiful lie I craved. Why are lies such beautiful things, Anne? And why are truths so ugly? But to keep that drug I needed to use other drugs. Or so they said. I didn't always know what was real and what wasn't. That's what the medication was for. It was important, they said, to do that. To take it. Or risk losing everything. It was important to stop telling people that the magic library was real.
I can't remember Anne if the last part was them, or you.
"You can't tell someone to believe in something. Faith, magic, whatever you want to call it doesn't work like that," you told me once.
You didn't want to tell people Anne. You didn't want to show them. You wanted them to find the magic themselves. When they were ready for it. And it, them.
"Are you really here, Anne?" I ask you, "Was it real? Any of it?"
You smile at me.
That Mona Lisa smile.
The smile reserved for after, when the library is closed, but the window between worlds is opened.