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August 15, 2012

By Justin Cornille

Barb sat at her desk and waited for the soft “bing” of the library’s P.A. system. The only thing better than the closing announcement, was the half an hour or so that she got to spend alone in the library as she reshelved the books in the reference section and locked up the library. Nobody understood the library like she did. To them it was just a building full of books. They just didn’t get it.

“The library is now closed. Please bring all books for checkout to the checkout desk,” announced the automated voice. Barb sighed to herself remembering when the announcement was given by a real librarian and not a recorded woman who had never worked there. That, she thought to herself, was what people loved now though. Patrons coming in with laptops and Kindles and Nooks, they all wanted it to be electronic. Nobody but her even used the old card catalogue that she kept so meticulously. She wasn’t convinced that that was a bad thing though. As a reference librarian she needed her resources to be in perfect order, and she made sure that they were.

Barb was shaken out of her daydream as the volunteer girl said, “Good night Mrs. Rachman.” Barb acknowledged the girl with as small a response as her upbringing as a lady would allow. She wasn’t entirely true why the girl had to be in her section anyways. They had told her that she was there to transfer all the periodicals from microform to computers.  Addie, that was what they said the girls name was. She seemed pleasant enough but why she had to be here, in the basement, was a complete mystery. Put her on one of the other floors. Stick her on the third with the children’s books. Barb had no use for her in reference. Reference was the soul of the library.

Barb stood up and walked around her desk to the little cart of books and looked up. The Loutre Public Library had been designed by the man who paid for it to be built. There were a few peculiarities due primarily to the fact that Hack Dunmill was not an architect. The most obvious of these oddities were the gargoyle and grotesques that stood sentry on the roof of the building but Barb’s favorite part was the skylight. In the center of the roof was a glass pyramid. Inside the building on all three floors there was a square cutout in the floor that matched the dimensions of the pyramid and allowed the natural light to flood the entire building. The stacks on each level then radiated out from the square in straight lines with reading nooks at each corner.

She wheeled the little cart out into the square of light and began organizing the books on the cart according to their decimal numbers. She listened attentively as she ran her long fingers over the spines of the books listening for the sound of the front door closing. After she heard it she smiled, now the library was empty except for the books and her. She finished ordering the books and spun the little cart towards the first aisle on her nightly routine.

The aisles in the basement reference section were warren-like. They stretched floor to ceiling and down each one a single row of fluorescent lights provided the only light that didn’t pour in from the skylight. The shelves themselves were heavy, old, wooden behemoths that, having been built in the 1920’s were now too near to each other to be up to code. However, given the historic nature of the building and the cost of updating the fire inspectors generally agreed that the aisles down in the stacks were actually just wide enough to avoid fines and closure.

The wheels on the cart squeaked quietly as Barb rolled it down the aisle. She picked up each book, checked the number on the spine, then the numbers of the books on the shelf and placed it gently on the shelf amongst its mates. She treated these books like the treasures they were. Too often students would come in looking to research something for a paper on something or other and just pull books from the shelves and then leave them laying around or worse yet, attempt to reshelve the books on their own. They never treated them with the love these old books needed. Barb always did though.

She picked up a book about marine invertebrates and set it on the shelf. As she slid it back she felt a sharp pain. She instinctively pulled her hand back towards her and watched as a small drop of blood formed out of a paper cut. She put her finger in her mouth and sucked on it backing up slightly before her shoulders bumped into the bookshelf behind her. From time to time she was still surprised at how narrow the aisles really were.

She took her finger from her mouth and shook her hand. She looked back at her finger and moved on. She couldn’t remember the last paper cut she had gotten. She pushed farther down the aisle. She loved the way the stacks smelled. The old books smelled like knowledge. That’s what these kids didn’t understand. Sure they knew how to find things on the internet or with their cell phones but their knowledge didn’t last. They didn’t understand that knowledge gained was a direct corollary to effort spent gaining it. Barb did though, that’s why she took such care of the books and the building. She welcomed that old musty smell and those wooden shelves smoothed with age. The knowledge was here for the taking. All you had to do was respect it and it would open the world for you.

The light above her head flickered. She looked up and saw it flash. It was dying. She knew how to replace the bulbs. She had taught herself because the damned maintenance man never got around to her request. Maybe she would have Addie put in the next request. Surely that pretty young thing would have better luck with the maintenance.

She left the cart in the aisle and made her way to the little closet that housed the step ladder and the light bulbs. She turned the doorknob and pulled the door open. The big, heavy door seemed unwilling to budge at first. It startled her, but she set her feet again and pulled harder. The door gave way and opened. She searched for the light switch on the wall inside the room. She ran her hand over the wall, but was unable to find it. Instead she stepped inside and used what little light managed to find its way into the little room.

As soon as she stepped in she regretted it. The air in the little room was stale. It felt heavier, saturated with the darkness. It pressed down on her. She tried to breathe in. She found it difficult and the air she did breathe in the air seemed to stuff her nose. She grasped for a bulb and, wrapping her hand around one of the fluorescent tubes, quickly backed out into the light of the stacks. The air was lighter again, she breathed more deeply and quickly than she would have liked to admit. She turned to walk back to the flickering bulb before quickly realizing that she needed to go back into the closet for the step-ladder. This time she stood and found it before she entered the closet. She held her breath and plunged back into the darkness. Again it pressed itself against her, wrapped itself around her legs; she grabbed the step-ladder and rushed back out the door.

She breathed again and headed off to replace the bulb. She walked through the wide open square in the center of the basement and looked up through the skylight out of habit. At some point clouds had rolled in and blotted out the moon and stars. Light still trickled in but it was much darker out than normal.  As she neared the dying bulb it flared brightly and then went black. Just in time, she thought to herself. She set the step-ladder and climbed. She changed the bulb easily and climbed back down. Barb set the dead bulb and the step-ladder by her desk, rather than risking the dark of the closet again, and walked back to the cart of books.

As she walked under the skylight she noted that there was no light coming through. Instead of the faintly defined square there was only the soft wash of the pale fluorescent tubes. She looked up, the sky was ink black. Clouds must have rolled in. She went back to re-shelving her books. She moved more quickly now. Although she would never admit it, tonight did not feel like a good night to stay late.

With her increased pace she had managed to shelve half of the books on the cart. She had also come to notice for the first time just how long and narrow the rows of bookshelves were. She had always liked how close together they were as it made easier work of putting the books back. Tonight though, she noticed the odd shadows they threw and the blind corners they produced. She clucked her tongue and scolded herself for being so silly.

As a general rule she followed the same path every evening while she put the books back. She would march down one aisle toward the exterior wall, then loop around the shelf and then march back up the aisle shelving books as she walked back toward that square of light. On some nights, nights like tonight when the clouds rolled in over that big glass skylight, she altered her path, and refused to walk around the end of the shelves. Without that little hint of real light, she hated being stuck between the wall and the shelves. Something about the tube-light made it seem too close.

She pushed the cart into the middle of the square after finishing one of the aisles and looked up. There wouldn’t be any harm in leaving just half of these books un-shelved.  Besides, nobody but her and her girl assistant even came down there most days. She could just leave these for the morning and nobody would say anything. There would probably be a storm soon with as dark as the night sky had gotten.

She pushed her cart over toward her desk before stopping. No, she thought, she would shelve these books tonight. There was no thunder, no lightning, no rainfall that she could see or hear, and she would not let herself be scared off by a dying light bulb. As she thought this another bulb flickered. This one though, was in an aisle she had already completed and so, rather than going back into the closet to find another bulb she simply turned around and walked back toward the aisles that remained to be completed.

As she walked farther toward the exterior wall putting books back as quickly as she could she began to hear a buzzing sound. It wasn’t unusual for the bulbs to hum. Maintenance always said something about a ballast or some such nonsense. She knew it was just a bulb about to burn out that they didn’t want to change. As she walked back to the center of the basement however, the buzzing got louder, much louder. She trudged on ignoring the fact that it was now too loud to be a regular bulb and continued her task.

Until the lights went out. There was a sudden clunk as the breaker tripped. The big, heavy breakers could always be heard in the basement. Almost immediately the darkness returned. Heavy, heavier now than even a few minutes ago in the closet, it pressed down on her. She gasped and immediately regretted it. It rushed into her lungs and stayed there. She felt it slick and wet in her mouth, in her nose, in her ears. She flailed trying to brush it away. It was no use. It filled the library. It swarmed her body and licked between her fingers as she swatted. It rushed against her.

She collected herself as much as she could and moved slowly, instinctively toward that center square. If there was light to be had it would be there. Her hip met the book cart solidly and she knew she would have a bruise. She didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that light. The black air of the library basement fought her every step of the way. She held her arms out in front of her searching for obstacles after her collision with the book cart.

The darkness wrapped around her wrists and snaked its way up her arms. It squeezed and tugged trying to pull her away from that square but she kept moving forward. It slithered over her shoulders and around her chest. It constricted as she kept moving forward. She breathed hard and it rushed in like black water. She could feel beads of sweat form on her brow. She pushed forward. As she took her next step the blackness seemed offered one final crush.

The medical examiners had questions for Addie when she showed up the next day. She had no answers for them. Barb had seemed fine when she left and it wasn’t unusual for her to change dying bulbs on her own. The medical examiner assured her that the questions were perfunctory and that the cause of death was most likely a heart attack. Most people at the library would never have admitted it, but they all thought it was a bit fitting that Barb would die under the skylight in that old library. She had told all of them more than once that they didn’t have the same feel for the building that she did.

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