Weird, Strange, and Wonderful

Casey had dreamed of a library just down the street from her house. The nearest library was at the corner of Juniper and Graham, two whole bus transfers or a hard-wrought ride from her father away. It wasn’t any fun anyway. It mostly had stuffy old books and water stained paperbacks the other libraries didn’t want. The kid’s section was confined to a single shelf. No separate YA section in sight.

“I was thinking of starting a petition,” Casey said over toaster waffles, “we could put it in the old farmer’s market. That would be perfect.”

Her father said “mmm” and sipped his coffee, not looking up from his laptop screen.

“Think about it. We could have a whole graphic novel section where the kettle corn stand used to be. It even has an upstairs part, so we could make a silent study area.” Casey leaned back, basking in the warmth of her idea.

“Don’t count your chickens,” her father said absently.

Casey scowled and finished her waffles, dumping the dishes right in the dishwasher instead of rinsing them first.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to start the petition. Because the library was already on her street.

Her block was half-full of creaky old houses that would never be lived in again. Dad said they were just waiting for gentrification to knock them down and plop five or six houses on the lot. Disgusting. Casey liked them because they looked like real houses. The new houses looked like cardboard boxes to her, boxes that someone tried to disguise with tempera paint.

The old houses had windows that were blank and hungry, the rooms beyond them had what little furniture was left after the houses had been abandoned from mold or vermin or failure to pay dues. Casey balanced on a line down the sidewalk as she walked past.

665

667

669—

She stopped.

The red-brown house at 671 had a large picture window in front. Beyond that window was a faded honeycomb pattern carpet and one of those old chairs that looked like an egg slicer. But there was a crack from where the front wall met the part of the house that jutted out for the garage. One half sagged while the other remained straight and true. And it was between the peeling red-brown slats that Casey saw the library.

She walked slowly up the dead front lawn, eye out for squatters or possums. Her first glimpse had been almost nothing but a bunch of dim vertical shapes, but putting her eye up to the crack confirmed that yes, it was a place of books and shelves.

Casey held her breath and looked between the crack and the window. The book space went far back, farther than even the back end of the house, she realized upon some quick mental math. The air that wafted out to her face was dry and cool and smelled like old books. Her knees went weak.

Breathing out, Casey flattened herself as much as she could. Her sternum caught on the splintering edge of the wall, but she managed to wiggle through by tearing her sweater.

The room was real when she finally flushed out into it; comfortingly, solidly real. Casey wiped her hand down the spines of a shelf, trembling inside. She selected a title at random, one with poison-green leather binding.

A Lady Loves a Fainting Couch,” she read. It sounded so wonderfully bizarre.

Next book. The Nightmares of the Wenderly Children. The book had scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations, she loved those.

An hour passed with her just squatted on the floor, going through titles. There were no boring books in this library. Even the books too difficult to read were still so stunningly beautiful she felt she might be able to decipher them with enough work.

Choosing a book to take away was the hardest part. The Wemberly Children won, along with a botanical guide written in french that had full color plates. Maybe the library was only a one-time thing, maybe it would be here when she came back. But she needed something solid, something to prove that she wasn’t dreaming.

Casey threw her backpack out first and then squeezed after it, wood shard scratching her breastbone.

“I thought you had school,” dad said to a printout when she walked in, filthy and ratty.

Casey shrugged. “Half day.”

She spent the rest of the day holed up with her books. The next morning she forged her father’s signature on an absence slip. She’d had plenty of practice, so it passed scrutiny.

The books were the best ever. Better than her dream libraries with a mammoth fantasy section and an attached tea shop. It was hard to quantify, but these books were the mix of all the best things she saw in books. Weird, strange, and wonderful. She tried looking up the authors of the books, often finding nothing. The authors she did find had no record of the books in the library. Edgar Allan Poe had not written A Jaunt Through Hell. Emily Dickinson had not penned The Summerwise Sky and Thee. Arthur Conan Doyle had only ever alluded to The Giant Rat of Sumatra. The weight of having something truly special was in Casey’s chest at all times. It was her duty to read them all, devour their pages so that their stories were not wasted on an empty space. She stayed up late and her grades plunged. Teacher’s conferences went unfulfilled as her father would absentmindedly erase messages as soon as he heard them.

Of course she knew the end was inevitable. Someone else would find the library and her peace would be broken. She had just hoped that she would touch on a fraction of what the library possessed before that came. Alas, she had barely skimmed the first shelves when the hammer came down.

Casey was walking back from the bus stop when she saw Mrs. O’Neil speaking to a group of people in front of the library house. Oh. That wasn’t good. Mrs. O’Neil was a busybody who had to insert herself into every single aspect of the neighborhood.

Casey’s father was among the gathered, thumbs constantly in motion on his phone. Casey crept up to the group from the opposite direction, praying he didn’t look up.

“…and I say to you, my grandson Nathan nearly fell through one of these moldy old boards.” Mrs. O’Neil orated. Fundamentalist preachers would be jealous of her cadence. “Why, I ask you, why? So that we can keep up a bunch of eyesores that aren’t important enough to be historical landmarks? Just look!” She held up an embarrassingly puffy coat missing a button.

The crowd stirred uncertainly. What Mrs. O’Neil wanted usually fell into place because no one felt strongly enough to resist her.

Casey drifted to the front of the crowd.

“—derelict, fit only for squatters—”

Casey raised her hand.

“—my attorney called it an ‘attractive nuisance’, which I feel is all too fitting—”

“Excuse me,” Casey said loudly.

Mrs. O’Neil reacted poorly to being interrupted, perpetually frowning mouth wrinkling into an anus.

“You can’t tear it down.” Casey felt slightly feverish. “It has the library.”

“Library?” O’Neil squinted down at Casey, like she might an ant or a torn seam. Casey’s father glanced up from his phone and realized she was present.

“Yes. There’s a library. Look in that crack right there.” Casey extended a trembling finger. Someone(possibly poor Nathan’s distraught parents) had wedged a spare board in the library hole.

Mrs O’Neil shook her head. “Do you think this is funny, young lady? There’s nothing in there but roaches and spiders. Does your mother let you run around in abandoned houses?”

Casey’s father caught her arm. “That’s enough, Case. You’re embarrassing me.”

Casey felt tears sting her eyes. Oh god, she couldn’t cry. Not now.

“Just. Move the board. You will see,” she said, measuring her words out like gunshots. She felt hot and cold all over.

Mrs. O’Neil just looked annoyed now. “You see the problem? It’s a challenge for children.” Good god, she was waving at Casey. She wasn’t a child. “They think it’s fun.” The word fun shriveled and died before it ever left Mrs. O’Neil’s lips.

Casey’s father tugged her again. “Now, Case.”

Casey let herself be pulled back from a crowd shooting her pitying and mystified looks. She wanted to cry, but her throat blocked up.

“Have you been going in there? I am very—” his phone buzzed. “Hang on, just a sec.”

Casey blinked rapidly, looking up at the house. “I hate you.”

“What?” Her father was texting furiously.

“Seriously. Leave me alone forever.”

“Mmm. In a bit.”

Casey wandered away, circling around until she stood on the side of the house. From there she could hear the old bat tie up her ranting with a pledge to see the house demolished. Casey crouched among the burr clover and wild geraniums, biting back a scream. Two books nestled in her backpack, but that didn’t matter when compared to an infinite well of knowledge. She could sneak in and bear out books by the truckful and it wouldn’t minimize the loss.

She spied a lump in the weeds near the corner of the house, a bit of the brick facing had broken from the corner and fallen. Suddenly she got a flash of a poster in her school library, one that loomed over the reading nook where she had spent so many free periods curled up. Two large hands bearing an open book into the ground, green sprout shooting from the spine. “Plant an idea,” it said.

Casey pocketed the brick.

“Look, I know you really want a library, okay? Maybe one day they’ll move buildings so that it’s closer.” Her father was attempting to console her, but he drifted away with every step.

“Do you think you could take me to the Juniper library meanwhile,” Casey asked casually, “I mean, could you try?”

Her father sighed. “Casey…that’s just so…” He drifted off again. Casey glanced over and saw him texting.

She planted the brick in the garden beneath her window. Before bed that night, she read The Perils of the Poison Pen until she fell asleep.

In the morning her eyelids did not want to open. She felt a great, sad stillness that seeped through her blankets and made the whole room seem colder.

Casey?” Her father rattled in the hall, opening and closing doors. “Case? Did you move the swiffer? I just—I put it in the linen closet, third shelf. I know I did. Since when do we have four shelves? Did I miss something?”

Casey opened her eyes. The cupboard above her bed had once been someone’s medicine cabinet, mirrored door and all, that she’d converted into her bedtime reading shelf. Now she opened the double doors.

The space recessed into the wall. Casey removed a thick handful of paperbacks to reveal a second row of spines, and behind that another.

Casey smiled.

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