Contest #91 shortlist ⭐️

La Tempestad

Submitted into Contest #91 in response to: Set your story in a library, after hours.... view prompt

147 comments

American Latinx Inspirational

Spring, 2021

The end of the day begins when the roar of the vacuum starts up in the back rooms of Lakewood Library. It blends into the familiar sounds of the two librarians on the last shift reshelving books and swiping old cards, before locking the glass doors behind them. It blends into the sounds of rush hour passing by and heading home to dinner or to night shifts. It signals to my brain that the day is over and there is one last thing to do before I can go home, fold the laundry, count the bills, and make dinner.

The vacuum is old and weak; it no longer pulls as strongly as it should. I have to run over lint and spilled jelly (which is not allowed in the library) six times, counting, before it disappears. I walk all through the library, from the far back with the ivy-covered windows and the outdated newspapers, to the front, with the RFDA detectors and the brightly colored children’s section. I pull the plain carpet pattern one direction, then the other. I try to make all the lines parallel so that it is obvious someone has vacuumed.

After a few minutes of the familiar rhythmic motion and noise, I straighten and look around. The building is almost empty except for myself and Carmen, silent except for the AC and the vacuum, and smells like old plastic book covers and Thieves’ Spray on the study tables. I’ve vacuumed this floor every evening from 5 to 6.30, Monday through Friday, fifty weeks a year, for eleven years. Since Carmen was just nine months and learning to say “Hola.” And in the day I reshelve books and straighten the newspapers in their stands.

Every day. Eleven years. 

I am overcome by despair. It is darkness. Our bishop at Immaculate Concepción talks about the dark night of the soul, when there is no spiritual life except despair. I stand, bent over from the weight of eleven years’ working and paying bills and folding laundry and cooking boxed pasta, in front of the great library window. Throughout the years I compare myself to the writers around me, when the hum of the vacuum begins to bore into my brain. I can never aspire to be like them.

Carmen sits on the bright red loveseat in the children’s section, her bare feet pulled up and a book balanced on her knees. She walks here from school at 3.25 every afternoon except Fridays, and sits in the same seat reading until 5.30, until we drive home and she does homework and I do the bills and the laundry. We eat dinner and I clean and we go to bed. On Fridays she has choir and walks over at 4.30 and reads for an hour. 

It is too late for me to be like the great writers, but it is not too late for Carmen. 

Reluctantly, I bend over again and continue the motion, back and forth, humming to myself to limit the vacuum’s damage to my ears.

The sun has begun to set and looks like a destructive dancing flame, barely below the narrow treetops. I can see it through the ivy-covered window behind the newspaper section, as I move backwards through the study tables. I usually ask Carmen to wipe those down. She will sigh and slide off the loveseat, go and find a rag and Thieves’ Spray, and lightly touch the tables with both. But she brushes crumbs and paper scraps off and makes the tables smell good and that’s what matters.

A week ago I took her to Gold Rush Cafe for breakfast on Sunday, a quarter mile away from the library. She told me she was almost done with the children’s section. 

“¿Eres demasiado viejo?” I asked, drawing my fork across the swollen, buttery pancakes. 

“No,” she said, looking around in case anyone has heard me talk in Spanish. “I've just read them all.”

I smiled. “Esa es mi chica.” I took a gulp of coffee. She drank her milk. I remember when I first got the job at the library, reshelving books, vacuuming, and cleaning the bathrooms. Carmen was just a baby, and so was I, just a girl fresh from Venezuela. She would sit with the Cat and the Hat books in the corner by the stained glass windows as I tried to teach her to read over the noise of the vacuum. 

My girl is so smart, I think. I look at her out of the corner of my eye as I move closer to the front. She goes to the Arts and Sciences Magnet School downtown, for free. She taught herself to read in English after I taught her Spanish. She writes these little poems and paints them on the partitions of the library bathroom. She thinks I cannot tell, but I know her handwriting. 

She writes pretend love notes in the books, too, when she thinks I’m not looking. I know the other librarians love reading them, watching the love stories develop. My Carmen is a writer. 

I push the vacuum under the shelves and between the plastic chairs. I don’t mind her being embarrassed of me. I was embarrassed of my parents. She still loves me. I do it because I love her.

Wind blows through the skinny, brackety pecan branches and ruffles through the ivy on the windows, just barely budding with life after a cold winter. I always feel so peaceful after hours here in Lakewood. There is wind and cleanliness and silence except for the occasional page-turning from the children’s section. The caladiums outside move in the breeze and rush of cars. The small bookish building sits on an isthmus amid a sea of asphalt and rush hour, calm and patient and quiet.

She has read so much. Much more than I have in my forty years. I only did six years in primary school in Caracas, and then I worked at the tire shop for four years in San Cristobal before I got pregnant and came to the United States. Carmen is thirteen and in the ninth grade -- they let her skip eighth -- and has done nearly twice the schooling I have. If we were in San Cristobal right now she would be in the tire shop flirting with the motorcycle boys. 

When Carmen sees me looking at her, out of the corner of my eyes, she stops scribbling into the margins of Danny the Champion of the World. I smile and keep my eyes on the blue-and-orange carpet blocks.

After I finish with the adults’ and young adults’ sections, I take a break from the noise and flick the vacuum off. 

“Limpia las mesas, Carmen,” I say, louder than I meant to after half an hour of vacuum noise. 

“I did the tables yesterday!” she says, groaning, but she puts her pencil behind her ear and dogears her page. 

“Los necesito limpios, todos los tardes.” 

She knows that; they have to be cleaned every afternoon. She sighs loudly but goes and finds the rag and the spray. I follow her and get the bucket of cleaning supplies and get ready to tackle the bathrooms. The two dark brown doors are covered over with flyers and advertisements, all kinds of events and parties and dances and shows. I open the door to the women’s with my elbow. It’s already pretty clean because I did it yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that. Antier is the Spanish word, a very succinct way to say the day before yesterday. 

The once-beige walls are boring no more. Three years ago Carmen brought supplies from art class and painted the walls white. Then after it dried the night, and no one noticed the next day, she came with dark purple, red, yellow, blues, greens, many shades of brown, and started to paint desert plants and small brown people watching colorful hot air balloons float into the ocean-colored sky. She wrote down the poems she had memorized for fun and the ones she had written, calligraphy on the inside of the stalls. 

A few weeks later someone else added a sunset and a cactus plant to the floor in the men’s. And a poem to the mirror in the women’s. And more and more added over the weeks and years. Carmen is proud of herself but not as proud as I am. My strong little Carmen.

The clouds knit together tightly outside the thick glass in the children’s section. The wind begins to pick up and shakes the narrow trees violently. Carmen stops wiping the tables to say, “It’s going to rain, Mama.”

“Ya, ya lo sé,” I say from the depths of the men’s restroom. The door is open so I can see the window and Carmen’s motionless form. “Es sólo una tempestad.”

“I know it's just a storm. I’m not scared.”

“Nada como las tempestades en Venezuela,” I say. 

“You even had hurricanes there,” Carmen says, a little more cheerfully, but she doesn’t move from the window. I know the feeling. I too have stood there, one small tired woman in the face of a thunderous, black tempest that comes raging down the dry creekbed, flooding the cracked streets and dousing the poorly-built houses. I know what it is like to stand helpless, tiny, before something so majestic and godlike. I feel as purposeless as I do amid old shelves and the works of countless successful writers and statesmen and businesswomen. 

“Sí, y los odiaba,” I say. I hear her laugh. She would have loved all the storms in Venezuela, unlike me.

Carmen is so short before the darkening clouds and the towering windows. She has on a bright yellow dress that contrasts with her dark skin. I stand slowly when finished in the bathroom, put away the cleaning supplies, and head back to the vacuum. I have about fifteen minutes until it is time to head home. On the way back to the vacuum I pass by Carmen and touch her hair gently. 

“Te quiero,” I say. 

Here is what I know but am afraid to tell her: I would run and hide from that storm. I would drive home quickly and go to bed and pray I am not overwhelmed. Carmen, my Carmen, will stand before that storm and glare at it. She will watch it and let it fill her and give her courage. Because if she has the resolve to face down a storm she has the resolve to go to college and rise far. She will not feel despair looking at the books of purposeful people, she will feel inspired. The storm is just a storm. She knows that and that is why she will not look back. 

I bend and pick up the vacuum again. After this I will lock everything up, turn off the lights, and we will drive home in our beat-up blue Toyota. I will sort the bills and worry and do the laundry, lock the front door and close the shutters, cook the dinner, make her do her homework and study for her tests. My back hurts and my knees cramp and I can barely breathe for the worry and despair. I am so small, insignificant. But I will do my best. I will pay the bills and vacuum the floor and fight down despair, because of her. Because of Carmen.

April 26, 2021 00:57

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147 comments

Lily Finch
01:38 Aug 18, 2022

Zilla, thank you for the story. It was so simply written but so brilliantly done. That makes a great writer. Well done! LF6

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Esperanza Rivas
22:19 Jun 25, 2022

Wow! Great job on this story. So beautifully written, and very touching. I found some aspects of it very relatable, which made it all the more stunning. The last line summed the whole story up wonderfully, ending it all so truthfully and simply. Because of Carmen.

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Fade Macaw
13:47 May 20, 2022

*cough* Talent *cough cough*

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Lisa H. Owens
21:47 Apr 25, 2022

Oh boy. This is a powerful story of true grit and determination. It moved me to tears. Though I am not an immigrant and am a middle-aged white woman, I have known the determination of this daughter, Carmen. God bless her and a strong mama.

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Thom With An H
02:34 Feb 21, 2022

You never comment on my stories anymore. Worse yet, you never write any. Come back. We miss you.

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Zilla Babbitt
01:30 Feb 22, 2022

Thom! I've missed you. I think I'm done on Reedsy, writing at least. I'll drop by now and again -- I want to read your stories again. What books do you read nowadays?

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Thom With An H
14:34 Feb 22, 2022

I don't read many books, not as many as I should. I read lots of articles. If it has to do with news or sports or history I probably have read it. I bought your book from Amazon. When I read my next book it will be yours for sure. :-)

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Zilla Babbitt
20:22 Feb 22, 2022

I have been forcing myself through a long list of books and have finally reached some I can enjoy. I'm almost done with House of the Wolfings, a Germanic-tribes epic that is said to have inspired Tolkien. But I also love the brevity and clarity of articles, mostly political op-eds. Peggy Noonan's my favorite. Oh, let me know what you think when you do read it! Thanks :)

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06:00 Jan 23, 2022

I like this story because I worked in a library for 17 years. I don't speak spanish so I really didn't understand what you said in those sentences but read around them and got the gist of it. To be surrounded by great books and words and want to be a writer is frustrating but interacting with people is gratifying. I like the that the character was doing her daily vacuuming and shelving books and it tells of the sameness of library work that is consistent and comforting at the same time. The legacy that she gives to her daughter is lovely to ...

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11:08 Aug 03, 2021

Love it. It's real, fully fleshed-out, and gorgeously written. Personally I find that I didn't really feel any tension, because your protagonist doesn't exactly have hopes and goals that involve herself. And those hopes and goals involving Carmen aren't leveraged to create tension. The character is sure of her hopes; it is more like faith, because she believes truly that Carmen will be a writer--is a writer. However, tension and a plot may not have been your intent at all. Regardless, I was immediately sucked in and enjoyed it immensely!

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05:49 Jul 22, 2021

What a superbly crafted story. Ethereal and pilotless it seemed yet was masterful in what it conveyed. That is so very typical of your exquisite writing style. I have submitted my story No Second Chances. I would greatly appreciate it of you read and critique it. Thanks a d congratulations for a very deserved win, Zilla.

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15:27 Jul 20, 2021

YaY, you're posting this week! I've been waiting to hear those words for a long time 😁

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15:49 Jul 14, 2021

Fabulous story, Zilla. I live that it takes place in a single setting, well almost, and it's all internal monologue. The characters came out very strongly etched. I was on a two month vacay. So, just back and posted my new story. Would appreciate if you critique it for me. Thanks and congrats for a very well deserved shortlist.

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B. W.
23:33 Jul 09, 2021

Heya, its been a while, how ya been?

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Megan Sutherland
02:00 Jul 05, 2021

Hiiiiii Zilla It's been a while, remember me?

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Zilla Babbitt
13:37 Jul 05, 2021

Of course, Megan! How are you?

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Megan Sutherland
20:22 Jul 08, 2021

Good, hbu? I've been pretty active and I'm working on more stuff. Just bought a $60 hoodie.

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Sia S
05:35 Jul 01, 2021

Hey, how's it going?

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Zilla Babbitt
13:33 Jul 01, 2021

Sia! Good to hear from you! I'm doing well, lots of reading and walking and swimming. What about you?

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Sia S
02:23 Jul 02, 2021

That sounds fun! Me too, and a whole lotta studying, exams coming up 😬

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Zilla Babbitt
15:14 Jul 05, 2021

Yikes! In the summer?

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Sia S
01:42 Jul 06, 2021

Lol, timezones, my summer ended a month ago! :P

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Solomon Lengyel
02:04 Jun 24, 2021

I really enjoyed your story's setting and charterers because I could understand whats happening. I would like to hear more :) Do you think you could give me a few tips, because I haven't wrote any story's except or the reedsy book app (which Has 9 chapters so far.) :D Very funny and pleasing

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15:31 Jun 04, 2021

Well, for one thing, this made me cry, so extra points for that! Thank you for inviting me into these people's lives, for letting me see through your narrator's eyes and share her journey for a moment. I love libraries and this story gave me a whole new perspective.

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Ayo! Erm-me being an idot-I don't quite understand your bio: "🌻 I am a reader, writer, contra dancer, coffee-drinker, memorizer, book-collector, Anglican, and optimist. I love to read mystery, memoir, and sci-fi... and I am awkward at small talk." What's an Anglican, and an optimist? Memoir is a genre? Gosh-I'm so stupid, I'm just here questioning everything, sorry. But it would be nice if you could explain those to me :) (P.S: YOUR A MEMORIZER? HOLY MACARONI, THAT'S SO KEWL! ((Does this mean you could memorize this comment in like, 5 seco...

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Zilla Babbitt
15:11 Jun 03, 2021

Hey, Blix! Good to hear from you ;). An Anglican, also referred to as a Reformed Episcopalian, is a denomination of Protestant Christianity. We worship from the Book of Common Prayer and affirm Scripture, apostolic tradition, and the writings of church fathers like Athanasius, Aquinas, and Luther. I grew up in a non-denominational evangelical church in a poor section of Dallas (so much opportunity for outreach) and I love the difference between that and my Anglican parish. We follow church calendar, which my Dallas church did not do at all, ...

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Woahhh, that's a lot of writing. I'm atheist, sorry, but I respect anyone's beliefs, color, religion, sexuality, etc. Sci-fi is an AMAZING genre. However, I find myself more appealed to fantasy, horror, and action. How do you become stronger at memorizing? One day, you'll look back at this comment, and glance at it for a mili-second, and memorize it. Still cool. I have to read words a few times to digest the meaning, and sometimes I think with the spelling for a little. Photographic memory would be so amazing though! You wouldn't have ...

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Zilla Babbitt
01:04 Jun 06, 2021

Practice makes perfect for sure. I would start out with good poetry-- Chesterton, Shakespeare, good rhyme and rhythm. Scripture as well. This will sound weird but prompts about death or fear would work. I want to do a piece on fear of death, fear of the unknown. I actually just posted some fragments and prose poems if you'd care to take a look! :)

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Oooh, like the type Edgar Allen Poe (did I spell his name right?) writes about? It doesn't sound weird at all. The prompts on Reedsy are light, happy, and just not that eerie feeling. I have a fear of death-the thought of leaving life FOREVER...? That doesn't really please me. At least I hope to die a peaceful death.

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16:11 May 29, 2021

Hiya!

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Zilla Babbitt
16:12 Jun 01, 2021

Hey! What's up?

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13:58 Jun 02, 2021

Hi! Nothing much, I’m sick tho, sooo...blech. Wbu?

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Zilla Babbitt
15:18 Jun 03, 2021

Oh no! Covid? I'm doing well, thanks! Summer has freed me up a bit and I'm teaching swim lessons (hoping to get a tan, too) and reading a lot. I'd also love to travel around the Fourth and meet my cousin's girlfriend (his first, so we tease him a lot, of course). You? Any plans this summer?

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12:34 Jun 05, 2021

Thankfully no, just a bad fever that stuck with me for 3 days. *sigh* Ooh, that sounds awesome! Haha, yaassss. Eh, nothing much, I have camp and CTY but other than that it’s just gonna be sitting around animating, or practicing contortion, or writing a ton like last summer if I can bust outta writer’s block.

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B. W.
00:09 May 29, 2021

hey

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Zilla Babbitt
16:12 Jun 01, 2021

Hi, B! How are you?

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B. W.
04:26 Jun 02, 2021

I think I'm doing alright, what about you?

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Zilla Babbitt
13:56 Jun 03, 2021

That's awesome! I'm doing well too, thanks :). I'm teaching swim lessons this summer and reading a lot. I heard that you might get into voice acting! That's so cool and exciting!

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B. W.
22:11 Jun 03, 2021

No prob. I've been wanting to get into voice acting for about 7 or so years now, and I've already done most of the stuff, like an application. I just have to meet with somebody who can help me, I'm glad it's happening. Oh, what are some of your favorite kinds of books? I really like horror/thriller.

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Lee Kendrick
16:26 May 23, 2021

A bit of a sad tale. The mother slaving on for her daughter's sake. Carmen spurs her on because she wants her to do well in life, obviously. A lovely little story. Best wishes Lee

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Malcolm S
11:29 May 19, 2021

That was amazing... Well done Zilla!

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