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Coming of Age Inspirational Sad

This story contains sensitive content

Allusions to abuse

I hate books. Every story I’ve ever overheard has been a load of rubbish from start to finish, nothing at all like how life actually is. Given this, it is a bit weird that I go every afternoon to my local library as soon as school is out. I stay until the librarian, Miss Robin, rings the bell and I have to leave, heading slowly to number 83 Prickleby Road: the brick box with the broken gate I should call home.

Today is no exception. I leave dusk at the door as I slip into the warm bright lights of Woolverton library. I hang my coat on the peg, heading to the corner where I like to sit, back pressed against the radiator, trying to store all the warmth in my body for later. Miss Robin will come over in 20 minutes as she always does, with a cup of cocoa and a cookie. She won’t even tell me off when I slurp the scalding drink and wolf down the biscuit, leaving stains and crumbs on the carpet. Instead she smiles her usual sad little smile and says:

“Just put the plate and mug on my desk when you’re finished, ok Max?” before heading back to the drop-box to continue registering the returned items.

Sometimes over the next hours, I catch her eye. She’s looking at me like a lost book; one she’d like to pick up and return to its shelf, if only she knew where I might belong. I don’t expect her to find the place as even I don’t know where it is; I only know where it’s not: the place with the gate hanging off its hinges and the punched-in windows: home.

I let my eyes run along the spines of the books. Sideways on, the letters are even harder to read than they usually are; the different shapes and sizes makes it near impossible so I give up, letting the book jacket colours jump out instead. On the shelf, there’s a vibrant rainbow so different to the whites and blacks my life is usually painted in: white, like the grip of knuckles; black, like a bruise.

Often people think libraries are really silent places, everyone browsing and turning the pages with the volume pressed to mute. But Woolverton library isn’t really that quiet at all. Miss Robin’s slippers, which she always wears, make a soft swooshing sound as she slips over the floor to replace the returned books; toddlers pull picture books out of the yellow and green crates on the floor, chortling as they do; there’s the methodical beep of barcodes when books are scanned out. And, at 4 o’clock sharp, there’s actual noise: a bunch of little kids coming for Story Time; jostling to get the best spot on The Hungry Caterpillar rug; chatting to Russell, the volunteer reader, about what book he’s chosen to read to them today.

I never join the circle. No one ever asks me to and I like it this way. It's not just that I'm older than the other kids rolling about on the rug; here I can let the warmth from the food, drink and radiator slowly spread within me, while Russell’s voice slips about me like a warm blanket. His voice is everything. The story, about some stupid little squirrels making a home together and eating a big winter feast, that I don’t give a stuff about. But as I said, his voice is something else. Sometimes its thick and golden like honey, then it ratchets up a notch; he’s racing away, taking me with him as the words come thick and fast, even if they are about Clover and how she’s chasing after some stupid dropped acorn. I close my eyes as his voice dips and soars and does the loop the loop about me. Just before I drop into sleep, I think how strange it is that such a nondescript guy, with a regular face and regular clothes, can have such a remarkable voice- hidden inside.

I probably wake up because it’s gone quiet. The circle of listeners has disbanded; Russell and his voice are gone: Story Time is over. I stretch stiffly and glance over at to the librarian’s desk; Miss Robin and Russell are helping the kids with the books they’ve selected to take home. I make my way to the table where the squirrel book has been left; I can move stealthily even with the bright LED strips overhead. Over the last 11 years, I’ve perfected the art of disappearing, behind walls, doors, even dustbins; now I often feel like I’m hiding even in plain sight. As I’ve heard the story read aloud, I might find reading the words a bit easier. I ignore the silly pictures of the smiling squirrel with the ridiculous bow in its tail, focusing on the name underneath. I heard Russell say it: C l o v e r.

I know it’s supposed to be a lucky leaf; but inside the word, just waiting to get out, I can’t help noticing two other words: love and over. My mind goes back to the two words like a scab it can’t help but pick: love and over; love is over. I shut the book and flip it, focusing instead on a series of flashcards also lying there. I know Russell has left them out for the next group: The A, Bee, C group for those learning to read. I fan the cards out and spell the letters, tracing with my finger: A is for apple, B is for bee, C is for Caterpillar crawling on a tree.

I know my letters fairly well, but whenever I put them together they always seem to spell out the same thing: my own ABC.

A is for anger, B is for blows, C is for cry where tears fall like snow.

I push the cards off the table and run to the door.

“Max! Max come back!” Russell calls.

I run faster; the cold bites and I hear faintly:

“Max, your coat!”

But I don’t turn. What use is a coat when all the windows are broken, the boiler is bust and the greatest chill will never go as it’s right there, deep in your heart.

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My coat is waiting on its peg for me when I push the library door open the next day. Miss Robin brings me cocoa and a cookie as if to say, it’s all ok Max, everything is still just the same. On The Hungry Caterpillar rug, Russell starts his story, children listening stretched out like they’re in the sun. I think I’ve heard this story somewhere before. I listen and can only think that if some fairy godmother came for me, I’d rather stay in bed, asleep, as it’s only then that I forget my empty stomach and frozen feet. I listen on. As I thought, the princess is left like an idiot at the party. What’s the point of even going, if you’re only going to get kicked out anyway, left in your worst clothes and your rubbish shoes? And then you have to run home, to the dirt and the ass-kicking parent, sweeping up the ashes as if you never left. Yes, the fairy godmother is a fake, what sort of help leaves you in the lurch at midnight? Better that no help comes at all…

I ignore the rest of the stupid story and make my way over to the Games and Puzzles section of the library. On the long table there’s a green board with some different coloured squares, a bit like chess but there’s no carved pieces; instead there are little tiles with letters printed on them. It looks like the game has been started but abandoned: three words connect. The middle word, linking all the others, spells S T O R Y. I know that from the signs stating “Story Time” hanging on the walls. Under it is a short word: S A D, I know that all too well; and then a much harder word to spell out and believe in: T R U S T.

I play with the letter tiles; they feel nice in my hand, all slippery and smooth with no sharp edges at all. I like how my fingers can turn over the tiles unseen, and the mystery: what will I pull out of the bag? I take a handful and look at them, choosing just two squares, placing them to join up to S A D:

D A D.

The three letters stare back at me; they don’t stagger and lurch. Instead, they rest on the green board like they’ve lain down for a rest in a field. These letters lie peacefully; they haven’t passed out on the pub doorstep, face down in a pool of puke, like the person they spell.

I want to throw the board and its words to the floor, but at that moment Russell appears with another plate of cookies and two steaming mugs of chocolate. Story Time must have finished whilst I was deciphering and adding to the words on the board.

“Hi Max, there’s no A, Bee, C group today, there’s so much flu going round amongst the little ’uns we’ve had to cancel. Any chance you fancy joining me for a game of Scrabble?”

 I stare at the board and the tiles I have added. 

“Ok, but I don’t know how to play.”

“That’s cool; we’ll just have some fun with the letters shall we and eat a few cookies while we’re at it.” He smiles, popping a whole cookie into his mouth which makes me smile for the first time in what seems like years.

It probably comes from all the reading sessions at the library, but Russell seems more than happy to talk out loud as he guzzles another biscuit like The Cookie monster.

“So, I think what I need is to add on to T R U S T: that’s the best place to start. Now this is a hard word, but let’s give it a go."He places each tile one at a time, spelling out the letter clearly so I can follow and make the word: T R O U B L E.

I ignore the word and notice the little numbers on the bottom right of each tile for the first time.

“What do they mean?” I ask, pointing to the numbers.

“Don’t worry about them Max. We’re not adding up the points with this game.”

I take another fistful of letters and consider.

Carefully, I add my selection to D A D; fingers shaking so the letters sit at angles in their little squares like they’re about to fall over: D R I N K.

Russell nods as if that is the word he’s been expecting me to play. Although he says we’re not scoring, I add up the points anyway.

“I get 10 for that word,” I say, smiling as I’m not bad at maths.

“More, K is on a pink square, so you get double points for the whole word.” He moves the K back a fraction, so I can see it’s on a different colour. I redo the sum.

“So that makes 20 then.”

“It does indeed. And I can make it a plural by just adding an S.” He positions his S and it lightly pushes against D R I N K which gently nudges D A D, so all the letters rock slightly like they’ve had a beer or two.

“One drink often has a way of leading to lots of drinks.” Russell says sadly.

I catch his eye and nod ever so slightly.

It’s my turn and it takes me longer to work out what word to place next and where. It wouldn’t earn me many points if we were scoring, but I know the word I have to play, adding on to either side of the I in D R I N K, spelling H I T.

Russell gulps, like he’s swallowed far too big a drink himself and it’s caught in the back of his throat and I wonder if he'll be able to continue playing.

I grip the little tiles in my fist and wait, hoping he can.

Quickly, he grabs a whole handful of tiles from the bag, there can’t be many left in the little sack. He considers for what seems a lifetime, and then makes his choice.

H E L P

I meet his eyes- and silently nod.

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-         T e n  y e a r s  l a t e r

I push open the door to the place where I belong; the place I have come to call home. As always, I hang my coat at the same old peg; I kick off my shoes and slip into my comfy slippers just as Miss Robin used to do and shuffle over to the desk with my name badge: Max.

Not much has changed this last decade: the books on the shelves look the same, even if some of the titles are different; they’re still a rainbow of colour, flashes of brilliance in a world that is sometimes, even now, only black and white. Yes, there’s a computer corner, but plenty of people browse the shelves before getting snuggly on the comfy chairs, ready to lose themselves in the myriad threads of a good yarn.

 It’s 5 o’clock and time to settle down with the bunch of kids who come regularly to the session I’ve started up: Puzzle Time. They come every week: Jack, Felix and Aya, perhaps just to get out of the cold and grab a free cookie and a cup of cocoa, as I once used to do. As well as the board games and puzzles, we’re making flashcards for our own ABC; we’ve gone from A is for angry, B is for bruise right through to H is for hope. Today it’s time to work on I and I’m hoping to make a good case for the merits of I is for iguana. Afterwards, we’ll play Scrabble and they’ll spell out whatever it is they need to, pulling fistfuls of letters out of that little dark bag; finally bringing them into the light.

“These are the letters.” I tell them. “Use them to tell your stories.”

I used to hate books; I don’t anymore. Over the years, getting first my letters, then choosing books to read with Russell, he told me something that I slowly realised was true: A tale is like a life, with a heartbeat all of its own; you’ve just got to listen for it. Slowly, as he heard me read, faltering at first then faster and faster as the weeks went by, I changed my mind quicker than my fingers turning the pages. I heard the heartbeat held in my hands, it echoed my own, beating me back to life. The stories shifted as I read them; I noticed often there were struggles, but through them, out of them, came survival too.

The stories in the books sometimes match my own. A life of hard knocks was turned around; kind foster parents took me in, helped me to write a life story where a different kind of spirit to the one in a bottle can be found. I stuck with school, got my grades and when Russell asked me what next? I knew the answer as much as he did.

I tell the kids who come to Puzzle Time all of that. Why keep it to myself? And I add on something to Russell’s words of wisdom because every good tale deserves a few different tellings, or an addition or two.

“Put your ear to any book and you’ll hear its pulse.”

Sometimes they laugh when I say that. Sometimes they look at me like I’m nuts, but that’s also just fine; they should be checking out a few laughs in this place as well as a book or two. And sometimes, just sometimes, they raise the book to their ear, and smile- surprised- catching the murmur of an urgent throb: the life within.

And that’s really why, as librarian, I’m here: to place these living breathing stories in hands, to coax a smile; and, if you’ll trust me, to listen to your tale.

Speak: I am all ears; for this tale, yours, is one I wish to hear.

December 07, 2022 21:21

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24 comments

15:49 Mar 15, 2023

I love the way this story made me feel so much and mingled with my memories of that special place that feels safe, if only for a time. Thank you.

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Tommy Goround
04:30 Dec 17, 2022

This was enjoyable to listen to on audio while I was in the traffic jam and fighting other Christmas shoppers. They lost. Thank you

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Rebecca Miles
06:24 Dec 17, 2022

Cheers Tommy.

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Rama Shaar
21:39 Dec 14, 2022

What a wonderful story, Rebecca! Heartbreaking and hopeful! Funny how your story and mine have a common theme this week!

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Rebecca Miles
21:56 Dec 14, 2022

Serendipity my dear. Xxx

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Laurel Hanson
21:59 Dec 12, 2022

This is fantastic! Loved: She’s looking at me like a lost book; one she’d like to pick up and return to its shelf, if only she knew where I might belong. I don’t expect her to find the place as even I don’t know where it is; I only know where it’s not: the place with the gate hanging off its hinges and the punched-in windows: home. It sets up the entire situation so well. Then the use of scrabble to open the communication - just great!

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Susan Catucci
18:52 Dec 12, 2022

Beautifully realized, Anne Marie. I thought the Scrabble game was a perfect way to bring Max out. Children often don't understand that there is help or how to ask for it. I've always thought of libraries and book stores as the internet before computers were developed, a place to lose yourself without getting lost, and a comfort (not to say the internet is always that.) And as sad as this was starting out, I love where it ended. Lovely. meaningful work.

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Rebecca Miles
18:57 Dec 12, 2022

Thanks Susan. It's Rebecca by the way😉Anne Marie is also a Miles though and she's only a relation through the Reedsy writing family. I'm sure you're reading her great stories too. I'm glad this is still getting read after missing the shortlist as I was really pleased with it. I'm so glad you found it meaningful.

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Susan Catucci
20:30 Dec 12, 2022

Very much, Rebecca! I think I know what happened, Anne Marie probably was praising your story as well and I happened to see her name and mixed you two up. Frankly, I do think you're both terrific writers, but thank you for correcting me. This story especially touched me because I write with children's mindfulness and well-being my primary focus, and this certainly fit that bill. :)

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Edward Latham
16:10 Dec 12, 2022

I love libraries, they are such a place of wonder and in this case cosiness and refuge. Your descriptions of the scrabble games were great both from a scene setting and character development point of view. I also love a story with a warm ending so I enjoyed the read!

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Rebecca Miles
09:09 Dec 13, 2022

It's minus 11 here in Germany so any warmth, even the literary kind, is much appreciated! I'm glad it warmed the cockles of your heart Edward.

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Wendy Kaminski
19:07 Dec 11, 2022

So touching! Thank you for this story, Rebecca!

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Rebecca Miles
19:12 Dec 11, 2022

Thanks. I'm a bit gutted this didn't make the shortlist this week. I hope it finds its way anyway to a few readers.

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Wendy Kaminski
20:49 Dec 11, 2022

I could be completely off, but the order they release/approve them might not have as much to do with the voting process as it seems. I know someone last week who thought that and who didn't get released until the very last day, but who shortlisted. Keep hope, this is an incredible story!

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Rebecca Miles
20:53 Dec 11, 2022

It's not a recommended ( you can check on the genre tab). Hey ho. I'll keep scribbling 😉

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AnneMarie Miles
15:32 Dec 10, 2022

It is always a delight to start my mornings with a good read from my sister Miles across the sea! This is yet another heartwarming story from you about the power and value educators have in children's lives. Like Lindsay said, it really only takes one adult to change a child's life; in this case it wasn't a parent, or another relative, or a teacher, but a couple of librarians - my favorite people!.(which only made this even more delightful for me). From the beginning I got the sense that Miss Robin and Russell knew Max needed help, and they ...

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Rebecca Miles
06:30 Dec 11, 2022

Go hug them and I'll take your big bear hug! We've deep snow here in Germany so blowing some magical snowflakes your way. Like you, I think I'm not going to manage a story over the next few weeks, there's just too much to do for school and hols. Unless it's very short...😂

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Delbert Griffith
16:06 Dec 09, 2022

The last sentence is a grabber. If, as an aspiring author, you aren't motivated to write something, then you will never be motivated. It was that inspirational. This is a realistic and heartwarming tale, Rebecca. The words you used just...fit. I no of no other way to put it. Every word was where it should be. Pretty amazing. I was a student for 16 years and a teacher for twice that, and I have encountered surprisingly few inspirational librarians. On the other hand, there is always an employee or two at Half-Price Books that are terribly e...

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Rebecca Miles
22:34 Dec 09, 2022

Any teacher worth their salt is passionate. I bet you inspired your students. Half-price books: we need that store here in Germany. Perhaps that's the job for me when I finally hang my teacher's coat onto its peg! And I'm so glad you felt inspired; let's share the love of stories eh, plenty to go around!

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Lindsay Flo
14:03 Dec 09, 2022

Very nice. I think it also touches on the thread of a statement I've heard before, both in the school realm and therapy realm: it only takes ONE stable adult to make sure a kid turns out okay. Even with the underlying hints of alcoholism and abuse, there was a warmth to this story. Nicely done :)

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Rebecca Miles
22:38 Dec 09, 2022

We all need a bit of warmth, especially at Christmas. This was heartwarming to write so if you felt that too as a reader, I'm very happy.

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Michał Przywara
21:40 Dec 08, 2022

Oh, very touching! I wasn't expecting a happy ending given what we were seeing, but I'm glad for one. It seems like people who went through trouble frequently set out to help others. I wonder if Russel also had a similar history. Using Scrabble like that was a great idea. It's giving someone space to talk, safely, if they feel ready for it. But because it's just one word at a time, maybe it reduces the pressure, and increases the chances of the word actually being heard. Yeah, I really like this device. (Although I wonder how realistic i...

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Rebecca Miles
05:30 Dec 09, 2022

Hi Michal, thanks for popping by. This is the tone I feel most at home in, sad with gentle optimism following on close behind. I was really happy with the Scrabble idea and yep, agree with you entirely, whenever I pick out my tiles I seem cursed with multiple I's! And then you're stuck with them for ages, while your opponent complains of their bad hand, full of high- scoring letters like z and x! The joys of Scrabble! Still, I'm hoping for a few rounds this Christmas.

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Rebecca Miles
21:23 Dec 07, 2022

This story is inspired by a Special Needs teacher at my very first school after teacher training, who helped disadvantaged and damaged children, those switched off from learning and perhaps even life, through board games. With such people, everyone can hope to find a place in a caring and considerate community, however bad a hand life has dealt them.

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