“Now you two need to be quiet. This is a library you know. Better yet, why don’t you go sit at the table in the far corner where you will disturb fewer people.” The matronly librarian in a navy print dress pointed to the back of the room away from the dozen tables surrounded by aisles of books older than we were. Her high pitched, crackly voice continued, “What are you studying that is so funny?”
As I grabbed my backpack off the back of the sturdy, oak chair undoubtably as old as the library, I said, “We’re working on a report about the Roman Empire.”
Her creased brow dissolved to an all-knowing smile, “Ah, yes, sixth grade. Are you in Washington Middle School?”
Natty, my project partner, gathered up three of the books on the table. “No, Brent and I are at Roosevelt.”
The librarian’s sagging eyebrows shot up. “Oh, why did you come clear to the Central Library?”
I gathered the other three books. “All the books on the Roman Empire at the school library and the Fourteenth Street branch were already checked out.”
She smugly chortled, “That’s why we don’t let these books be checked out at this time of year. When you are done with them, put them on the library cart by the librarian’s desk, so the other sixth graders can find them.” She turned to leave, but mumbled, “When will Mrs. Scott at Fourteenth Street learn?”
As soon as we had settled into the back table Natty looked around me to be sure the librarian was gone. “You aren’t going to tell Nick we came here are you?”
Nick, Natty’s boyfriend, the star jock of football, basketball, and baseball wasn’t about to hear from me that I was spending time with his carefully selected girlfriend - the prettiest girl in the sixth grade. “No way, I’m not dumb.”
Natty’s cute, lightly freckled nose wrinkled as she wrapped one of her golden locks of hair around a finger. “Good,”
“But why is it a secret? Didn’t he get assigned a project partner too?”
“Yeah, he got a guy from the basketball team. That way they could co-ordinate their research and practice times. The coaches make sure the regular teachers do things like that.”
I had nearly fainted when Mr. Simpson had paired me and Natalie Rothchild, but I really wanted to know why meeting with her was a secret.
Before I could follow up on the big secret question I heard, “Working hard, or hardly working?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the librarian silently glide out from between two bookcases. She carried a tray. “Here, do you two like chocolate? One of my student assistants baked these. We need to get rid of them or the ants will find them tonight. I’m not a chocolate fan.” She towered over us at the end of the table, swinging the tray around within reach of us. Two chocolate brownies occupied the end of the tray. Was this a peace offering after her earlier scolding?
Natty scrunched her nose. “I don’t know. Every time I even look at a brownie I gain a pound.”
The librarian looked down over her half sized glasses at Natalie in her skin tight jeans and t-shirt. “I think you can afford to add a few pounds. I just don’t understand why looking like a twig is fashionable.”
The librarian certainly didn’t need to worry about looking like a twig. Sturdy oak might be a good description. I reached out and took one of the brownies. Natty hesitated, then daintily picked up the last one as if it was the most delicious poison. As the matron left I leaned forward, “Wow, these must have a double portion of chocolate, but what’s that other flavor?”
“I don’t know. It does taste strange.”
The next thing I remember was waking up. It was pitch dark. How had I gotten home? Then I realized, I had been sleeping hunched over a table. I bumped some books. I was still in the library! I bumped a bunch of hair.
Natty started and lifted her head up. “Eek! Where am I?”
“Shhhhh! We’re still in the library!”
“Why is it dark?”
“I don’t know. We must have fallen asleep and the library closed.”
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know. I’ll check my cell phone.” I pulled it out of the side pocket of my backpack. I was glad it was dark. My mom and dad only allowed me to have an old fashioned flip phone. I know Natty had a smart phone. I flipped it open below the table’s edge. It didn’t light up. I pushed the on button. Nothing. “Uh, my phone appears to be dead.”
Natty huffed as she rummaged through her backpack. “Do you think those brownies had something in them that made us fall asleep?”
I scratched my head. “Yeah, Everything turned blurry after we ate them. Either that librarian didn’t know what her assistants were up to, or she is a hipster hiding in a librarian dress.”
Natty pulled out her iPhone. She pushed the button on the top. Nothing happened. “Mine is dead, too! Now what do we do?”
Well, it seem obvious to me, but I tried to be nice about it. “Let’s find the door and get out of here.”
“What do we do with these books. She said to put them on the cart.”
I personally felt it a minor infraction to leave them on the table, since finding the cart in the dark would be a major task. Besides I had a whole lot of other concerns on my mind. What were my parents going to say when I got home? Even worse, what were Natty’s parents going to say? Worse still, what was Nick going to say? “I don’t think we can find the cart in the dark. We’ll be lucky to find the front door it’s so dark.”
I heard her moving the books around until they were neatly stacked. She pushed her chair in. I followed suit. I didn’t want the librarian to think I was a slob!
I turned toward the direction of the entrance. I could see a faint glow coming from the exit light, though it was out of sight. We just needed to get past the dozen tables. “This way.”
Natty clamped onto my arm like a pit bull. “I’m scared.”
I wasn’t scared of the dark. I was just scared I would damage my male ego as I ran into all the tables between us and the exit. Now, normally my heart would be racing from having the prettiest girl in sixth grade clinging to me, the hero, but I was too nervous that I would blow my hero status to allow myself to even think about that. “We’ll go slowly. Let’s try to go from table to table.”
I was grateful my strategy worked. There were about five paces between tables. I went step-by-step swunging my free arm back and forth to locate the chairs and tables as we zig-zagged our way out.
Natty noticed my success. “You’re smart. I would have just stumbled around the room hitting everything. You get good grades, too, don’t you?”
“Well, I do study hard. Not being a jock, I have the time.”
“Yeah, I noticed that 100% on your last paper when the teacher passed them back. Do you get 100% on all your papers? I can’t remember all the names of those Greek and Egyptian gods. I’ll be lucky to get a ‘C’ in his class. You know what my mom keeps saying when she sees my grades? ‘You’re going to need to hitch your wagon to a star. I’m not exactly sure what she means.’”
Usually it meant having a really big goal. I somehow don’t think that is what her mom means.
“Before we go, I need to use the restroom.”
Isn’t it funny how a person’s comment can affect us. As soon as she said it, I had to go, too! “I think I saw them next to the front desk.”
When we entered the foyer area the flooring changed from carpet to tile. There was light from the glass doors and the exit sign above them. We easily found the front check-out desk, maneuvered along it then the doors to the restrooms.
Natty loosened her grip on my arm slightly, “I can’t read if this is the women’s or the men’s.”
“Don’t they have plastic symbols on them for the blind people?”
“Oh, yeah. You’re so smart!”
Of course, I felt like a fool feeling the symbol on the door. “I think this one is a woman.” I pushed the door open for Natty.
“It’s dark in there! I’m not going in alone!”
“I guess I can help you find the stall, then leave.”
“I don’t want to be in there all alone! What if someone is hiding in there!”
I was glad it was dark. She couldn’t see me roll my eyes. We felt our way around the room past the paper towel dispenser, past the sink to a stall. She went in and closed the door. It latched.
She felt her way to the toilet. “This is embarrassing. You’re going to hear me go!”
“I can wait outside.”
“No way! You’re not leaving me here in the dark all alone! Plug your ears with your fingers!”
I heard her anyway. “All right. Do you want to wait for me outside in the lobby, or come inside the men’s room?”
“No way! You’re not leaving me alone out there, and I’m not going into the men’s room! You can go here!”
I rolled my eyes again. I certainly wasn't going to tell anyone about this, especially Nick. Now it was my turn to be embarrassed. I realized I would miss the toilet if I stood to do my business. I had to sit and swallow my male ego, but at least the seat was warm!
With the light coming in the front doors it was easy to find them, but they had a chain and padlock through the crash bars. Obviously, there had been a problem with someone breaking the glass and opening the doors in the past.
My clinging partner sighed. “Now what do we do?”
I tried not to sigh so that she could hear me though I was getting a little tired of her lack of ingenuity. “The librarians must come in another door, one without glass. We will follow the walls around until we come to one.”
Eureka! One exited the side of the building.
Our situation didn’t get any better outside. Seeing was no problem, but here we were in the center of downtown. Not a creature was stirring, not a person, not a car, not even a ferrel cat.
Nataly stopped clinging to me, but didn’t stop with the obvious questions. “How are we going to get home? My cell phone doesn’t work. That’s how I called and paid for the Uber to get here.”
“We can start walking down Third Street. If a bus comes along I have enough quarters to get us on.”
“What if a bus doesn’t come? What do we do then?”
“Walk! It must be five miles!”
“I’m not going to walk five miles. What do you think I am, crazy?”
“No, desperate! Just think of it as 40 times around the track at school.” As soon as I said that I know it was a mistake.
“Forty times around the track! I can barely get around once. Isn’t there some way we can call our parents?”
“Let’s start walking. Maybe we will come to a business that will let us use their phone.”
Fortunately, she didn’t argue with that.
I don’t know whether to say our fortune improved or not. Soon a Jaguar pulled up. Out jumped at a nattily dressed woman. “Natalie Rothchild where have you been? We have been looking all over for you.”
Then Natalie’s father jumped out of the driver’s seat. He glared at me while he said, “Natty. Are you all right? Do you know what time it is?”
Natty glanced back and forth between her parents. “Yes, I’m all right. No, I don’t know what time it is. My cell phone died.”
Her father glared at me again as he looked me up and down. “What about your cell phone?”
“Mine is dead, too”
Her mom, repeated her question. “Where have you been? We have driven this street a dozen times!”
I figured that was an exaggeration, but I wasn’t about to call her on it.
Natalie looked sheepish. “We fell asleep in the library, and when we woke up it was all dark and closed. We had to find our way out.”
I was glad she didn’t mention the brownies, but on the other hand, it sounded awfully suspicious not having an excuse for falling asleep. I could almost hear them wondering what dastardly deed I had done to her that she was trying to cover up with a lame excuse. They looked her up and down, then me. Were they looking for clothes out of place? It was obvious they didn’t believer her. After a long pregnant pause her mom said, “Let’s go. We can talk about this in the car.” She grabbed Natty’s elbow and directed her to the back seat. After another glare from the father, the parents climbed into the car and took off leaving me in the lurch for a ride home.
I sighed. A ride from her parents would have been nice, but on the other hand the heat from them might have been unbearable. Maybe it was for the better to walk. I started hoofing it again. A morning breeze kicked-up. I wished I had brought a jacket. At least I could walk faster by myself. At five miles an hour I could be home in an hour with the bonus of warming me up.
My heart skipped a beat when a cop car glided up next to me. The passenger side window rolled down. An officer said, “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
I stopped. “Home. A bus hasn’t come along, so I’m hoofing it.”
“Do you know what time it is? It’s way past curfew for kids your age.”
“No, sir, I don’t know what time it is. My cell phone died. I don’t have a watch.”
“What’s your name?”
“You’re the missing kid.” His tone got even more serious. “Where’s the girl?”
“Her parents found us and took her.”
The officer turned to the other officer, “We need to verify that.” He looked at me again. “Why didn’t they take you?”
“I don’t think they liked me. I think they thought I did something bad to their daughter.”
“Where have you been?”
Before I could reply their police radio blared, “Code 99, code 99. Main and Twentieth Street.” They took off without even looking back turning on their red flashing lights, without the siren.
I had never felt so tired and lonely, but I was actually relieved I didn’t have to tell them the library story. I continued my journey, but I was now down to a trudge, My eyelids wear heavy. The breeze felt colder. It must be coming off the bay.
About the time I could see a light glow on the eastern horizon, another car pulled up. This time it was familiar. My mom jumped out and gave me the biggest hug and kiss she had ever given me. “Where have you been? Do you know what time it is?”
“I was at the library. You know that, and no, I don’t know what time it is. My phone is dead.”
My dad, standing by the open driver’s door said, “Get in. You can tell us about it on the way home.”
The car was warm, but now that I was safe, my parent’s reception turned chilly. They must have drilled me about the situation from every angle to figure out if I was telling a tall tale or the truth. They finally gave up. My mom said, “Well, since you have been up all night, I think you should stay home from school.”
I closed my eyes to concentrate. “It’s Friday. I have a math test, English test, and my oral Roman Empire report to give in Social Studies. They will dock me if they are late.”
My mom studied me. “Did you get the report done? Are you prepared?”
“No, I’ll have to punt.”
Punt I did. Nataly didn’t show. I was on my own, but maybe that was good. I sat in Social Studies class listening to the other reports wondering what I would say. We never found any books that discussed what types of occupations the Romans had. I listened to the report on building the aqueduct, the Appian Way, the Coliseum, the Senate building when it finally hit me. Duh! All those things needed to be built; designers, engineers, and brick layers. Those were the occupations! Then add all the other things people needed, food, clothing, Senators, soldiers, etc. I had my report!
It went smoothly. The only thing that stumped me was the paper the teacher handed me at the end. It asked, “What percentage of the research and report was done by you, and how much by your partner.” Frankly, I was ready to write that I had done it all. After all, we hadn’t figured out what to do at the library, and the reception Natty’s parents gave me certainly could merit such an honest disclosure. Then I remembered what her mother told her. “You’re going to need to hitch your wagon to a star.” I think I figured out what she meant. I put down she did 50%.