A clock somewhere in the city struck twelve. Maybe somewhere else, it was morning.
Somewhere else wasn’t important though.
The books on the shelves shifted, their pages begging to be turned, their covers to be worn and loved. Their ink slowly slipped away, fading every day a little more. No one noticed. No one would notice until it was all gone, leaving behind dusty paper that could crumble in your hands when you touched it.
“You can come out.” The librarian was short, somewhere in his twenties. People joked that he knew everything about the people in the town, but sometimes it turned into something serious and they shivered. The library itself was always cold, drafting winds flowing mysteriously from nowhere, even in the warmest summers.
The teen hiding behind the shelf at the entrance sniffled before dragging himself up and into the candlelight.
“How’d you know I was here?”
“You aren’t very quiet.” The librarian bit off the last of a piece of tape and smoothed it down, fixing a torn page so another child could immerse themselves in the same story again, so the book could feel loved. “You aren’t allowed to be here.”
“I can’t be anywhere else either. It’s my safe place.” A library is one of the only places you feel safe after dark. In a way, you almost wish there were ghosts or creatures of the night to tell the tales of the building holding more stories than anyone could count. A library, no matter how old or new or big or small, is comforting; with its cushions and dimly lit rooms and quiet and walls and walls of books. There are classics and poetry and fantasy and romance that makes you swoon and sci-fi that makes you wonder and biographies that make you laugh. There’s anything and everything and you wonder if it's ever real laced into fiction or if it all really lived in someone's head.
“Are you hiding from something?” the librarian didn’t mind the company. That is to say- he was usually alone and he didn’t mind that. He didn’t mind not being disturbed. But he also didn’t mind maintaining conversations and being with others.
“Someone.” They ran a hand through their hair, muttering.
“Oh?” Librarians have to have the best hearing, see, to make sure no one’s speaking and disrupting the silence or the pitter-patter of rain that’s sometimes heard on the windows.
“My father,” they shrugged as if to explain.
“Does this father of yours come to the library often? Or at all, even?” The librarian’s fingers twitched. He straightened a pile of books and blinked at the time that sat motionless and green on the digital clock on his desk.
“Yeah, sometimes. On the weekend usually, for ‘work stuff’. He’s always wearing a green tie. Green like-”
“Like the vines covered with thorns, begging a prince to come to save the princess locked behind their wall? I’ve met him.”
“I was going to say grass, but hey, that works.”
“Could I ask why? You’ll have to leave soon, you know.”
He did know, but he didn’t want to. He also knew both of his parents likely hadn’t even realized he was gone yet, which angered and saddened him at the same time.
“I wish I was important.”
The librarian cupped their cheek in their hands, leaning on the desk. “Don’t we all?”
The kid laughed, sitting back down on the floor and bringing their knees to their chest.
“But you can’t say that.”
“And why not?”
“Well...you are important. The city would notice if you disappeared. If you ran away to an old library after dark.”
“Mm, but they don’t, do they? No one really has any idea that this conversation is happening right here right now. It’s like a secret.”
Like a secret, because secrets are words, not actions. They’re whispers.
But then again, actions can seem like whispers sometimes too, things shared, or at least supposedly shared, between only two special people. Like a kiss or a lingering gaze.
The librarian chuckled softly.
“You guess? You need to be certain, you won’t get very far in life with guessing. I hope it isn’t your test-taking strategy.”
“I mean...yeah. I gu-suppose you’re right.”
“Synonyms, but that’s alright. You’ll learn to be sure of yourself. Without faking.”
“See, you did it again. It’s yes or no, because sometimes there is no in-between. Let’s practice- what do you think of death?”
The boy blinked, staring straight down at the creaky floorboards.
“That’s not a yes or no question.”
“No, but it leads to one. I can skip to the question if that’s what you want. Do you want to die?”
He exhaled, tapping his fingers lightly against his side.
“N-No.” His voice cracked as he spoke, and he frowned.
The librarian yawned, stretching his thin arms.
“Mm. What time do you usually sleep?” It was getting late and the librarian wondered how late the teen was used to.
The teen almost laughed, sweeping a hand through his hair again. He shrugged.
“It ranges from about 7:30 to 3:00am.”
The last digit on the digital clock changed, from a six to a seven, brightly disturbing the darkness. The librarian blew out his candle so it was just that neon green illuminating his face like magic. Smoke from the candle wafted away, disappearing somewhere into the building, though all the windows were closed.
“And today? When are you planning?”
The boy checked the time on his small watch; an analog, so he could barely see the hands behind the glass. He squinted and sighed, making out the small hand on the twelve.
“I guess as soon as you kick me out.”
“You live far from here?” The librarian didn’t want to leave the boy alone, but he also couldn’t stay in the library much longer. He was growing tired, and he hadn’t even had his daily tea yet.
“I guess it depends on what you determine as far.”
The librarian walked out from behind the desk, twirling a key in his hands.
“What’d we say about certainty? Come on, I’ll take you home kid.”
“Thanks.” The teen got up slowly, smoothing down his sweatpants and hugging his arms to his sides. The librarian set a hand on the boy’s shoulder, leading him to the oak door. He pushed it open and they walked out. It closed by itself behind them.
They walked to the only car in the vacant parking lot.
There’s just something about driving at night, or even riding, that makes you breathe a little better, see a little clearer. The boy pointed directions to his little house, and for the first time, didn’t feel his throat clog up or his eyes water as they neared the house.
“Stop,” the boy said, staring at the handle of the door. The librarian leaned right and opened it.
“Remember what I said about guesses, yeah?”
“Yeah. I will. Thank you.”
It was for the ride and for other things too. The librarian just nodded as the boy walked out and slammed the car door behind him.
As the librarian drove away, the boy thought of yes, no, and maybe.
When the door opened for him, his mother with her hair in a bun and red rims around her eyes greeted him with a hug.
“Do you have any idea how worried we were?” she whispered into him, still half outside and half inside, robe hastily tied at her waist.
“I...No.” He hugged her back, tight.
“Well we were about to call the police, so you’re lucky you showed up when you did.”
“Yeah, lucky…” The boy sent more silent thank yous to the librarian- like a secret between him and the wind. They walked inside and closed the door and the boy stared up at the ceiling and felt like the house was suddenly a little more like home.