WOW! Women on Writing Writing Contest Honorable Mention
When the city’s clock tower struck ten at night, the lights of the New Progressive Republic Library automatically shut off, and the Pipher Screens lit up like mechanical fireflies. The whir of the machines prepared for sleep. Harsh spots of white light still peppered the tiled ceiling, lighting the wide room. The Librarian edged out from behind her varnished front desk, folding her worn cardigan tighter against her ribs, and hurried toward the Catalogue along the far wall.
She examined the miniscule files recorded, detailing every Screen used, every “book” checked out, every Daily Automatic Newspaper read that day. But as The Librarian checked the Catalogue, she heard a distinct crackle. It came from the bottom floor, where the paper books sat in scattered, unorganized shelves gathering dust.
The Librarian heard another, unmistakable crack, like a whip flicking the air in the distance. She limped to the stairs placed in the middle of the Library, which led down a wide cavern-like area to the bottom floor. A pale-yellow light guided her down, to the left, until The Librarian’s heels stepped onto patchy green carpet. She listened for the sound again, wondering who had managed to sneak downstairs without her noticing, who thought they could evade her and stay after hours. A few quiet minutes later, The Librarian caught the sound several aisles down.
Marching past aisle after aisle, her lips pursed, her cardigan ruffled, The Librarian reached the source of the sound.
A young girl about ten sat cross-legged on the floor, a thick book with a cracked spine placed in her lap. Other volumes, white with dust save where her tiny fingertips had handled them, lay about her. Her plaited hair hung about her face, already speckled with bits of dust, but she ignored how it gathered about her like snow, keeping her wide brown eyes on the crooked black lines stamped onto the pages. She flipped through another page.
“Excuse me,” The Librarian set her pointed jaw, “The lights went off on the top floor; the Library is closed.”
The girl pricked her small head up and eyed The Librarian pensively. “I know,” she answered. She dropped her eyes back to her book.
The Librarian bristled. “Where are your parents?” she demanded.
The girl shrugged, “I don’t know. They let me go around by myself. I usually hang out by the Pipher General Store, but I always want to come down here to read. I would have left, and you wouldn’t have seen me, but I got to a really good part and I can’t leave yet.” She redirected her attention back to the book, despite The Librarian’s glare.
The Librarian placed her leathery hands on her hips and examined the girl, unsure what to do. There was a penalty for keeping the Library open late.
“What’s your name?” asked the girl suddenly. She glanced up from her book, but only for a moment, before her eyes darted back to the page.
The Librarian pulled her arms back up, hugging herself, and drummed her bony fingers against her elbow, “Smith.”
“Oh. Everyone is named Smith.”
“What’s your name?”
Judy looked up from her book, noticing The Librarian’s stare. She impulsively drew the book closer to her, wrapping her arms around its crumbling cover. Her eyes widened in slight worry, and suddenly she seemed, to The Librarian, like a mother holding her child, a crown of dust upon her head.
“What are you reading?” asked The Librarian.
“King Arthur,” answered Judy.
“I think I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s my favorite. It’s about heroes and knights and magical faraway places. You read all about King Arthur’s life and the heroic things he and his knights do. I’m not stuck in this crummy city when I read it.”
The Librarian kept silent, staring at Judy, who rested her palms against the book in sacred acknowledgment and lowered her eyes.
“I’m at the end. King Arthur is dead. But that’s what makes it a story, ya know?”
The Librarian caught a streak of light outside the window. Looking out, she spotted the sleek levitating cars, the 10:15 monorail whizzing up and over one of the Pipher buildings. Orange lights dotted the windows of skyscrapers, replacing the stars. Upstairs, the machines continued whirring before slipping into silence, leaving the Library quiet before the noise picked up again tomorrow.
The Librarian turned back to Judy sitting in the dust.
“Take all the time you need, Judy,” she said.