The Improbable Library
The moment I stepped into the library, I felt at home. Some architect must have read my mind and built a quiet, well-lit main floor that smelled faintly of old books, packed with low half-shelves and a prominent desk from where the librarian peered over fashionable black glasses. To her left, a carpeted staircase promised more floors thick with shelves.
"Can I help you?" the librarian drawled. She was everything I was not--young, smartly dressed, with hair pulled up in a chic messy bun that my hair could never pull off.
I lingered by the door, setting my phone to silent. "I'm just in town for a few days at a workshop." A librarians' workshop, but I didn't want to out myself yet. "I was looking for a place to spend a few hours."
"Anything you'd like me to look up?"
Odd that she didn't just point me towards the current newspapers or periodicals. Then again, the place was deserted--also odd--and she looked utterly bored. I asked, "Do you have The Falconer by Karen Roseling?"
There must have been something in my voice. The librarian gave me a sharp look. Then she tapped away at her keyboard.
I waited, suddenly feeling exposed and uncomfortable in the brightly lit room. Of course they wouldn't have The Falconer. Nobody had my first and only novel.
But the librarian scratched something on a slip of paper and held it out to me. "Take the stairs up. It'll be to your right."
I gaped. My jaw snapped shut. "You have it?"
She sighed, leaning back cross-armed in her chair. "We have every book ever published."
"No, really," she said. "We have the perfect edition of every book ever published."
I frowned. I knew a lot about books, but… "What's a perfect edition?"
"The book the author imagined in their head, their ideal book, not the poor approximation they managed to get published."
"You're joking, right?"
She rolled her eyes. "Look for yourself." She shooed me away with her hand.
How unlibrarian-like, I fumed. In a huff, I went upstairs. The call number she'd written looked perfectly normal. The shelves were well labelled, and the books in order. I pulled my novel down.
It had a different cover.
I gawked, hardly daring to breathe as I stared at that cover.
Gone was the slightly tacky cartoon of an obese bird that my publisher had saddled me with. No, this cover, my dream cover, showed a painting of a woman standing on a cliff, her hair blowing in the wind, a falcon on her wrist. This cover I would have been proud to show my mother.
I traced it with my fingertips, the embossed letters of the title smooth under my touch. My heart beat loudly in my ears.
I opened the cover and began to read. By the end of the first page, I was hooked. The prose flowed, smooth and elegant. The dialogue was brisk and lifelike, the sensory details precise. It was exactly what I would have written, had I the skills to do so.
When Chapter One ended, I hugged the book to my chest. If I had written this book, my publisher would not have dumped me. My agent would not have left me. I would have been able to sell the additional three novels I'd written in the ten years since then.
I sprinted down the stairs.
"Where did you get this book?"
The librarian was slow to turn her head from staring out the front windows. It took a moment for her eyes to focus on me.
"Exclusive vendor," she drawled.
"This shouldn't exist. It's impossible."
She sighed again. "Improbable. Not impossible."
"Order me a copy. I'll gladly pay."
"We're a library, not a bookstore."
"How do I get a library card? I want to check this book out."
That sigh again. I wanted to kick her shins. "We're a non-lending library. Everything must be read in-house."
"Do you have a photocopier?" At least I'd have some proof of the book.
"Sorry, no." She turned her gaze back to the world outside the library.
I puffed in frustration and retreated to an overstuffed armchair at the back of the main floor. Here the shelves were lined with books by Ursula Le Guin and Guy Gavriel Kay, two of my favorite authors. I gawked at the titles. How did one improve on The Wizard of Earthsea?
I sank down on the hard chair, trembling.
That was how the library knew to put these books here. That was why I'd never heard of this place, why it wasn't included in the tourist information for the workshop participants. I'd stumbled upon the small sign outside while looking for a quiet place to eat lunch. No doubt once I left, I'd never find this place again.
I clutched my book tightly, afraid to let it go. But I had to. The workshop allowed an hour for lunch; I'd have to leave soon if I wanted to get a sandwich and be back for the next session. A colleague was presenting. I'd promised I'd go to support her.
I didn't want to be a liar and a bad friend, but I couldn't leave, not without some proof of this book.
I pulled out my phone. I'd never used it to take pictures of a book before, though many of my patrons did. I snapped a picture of that marvelous cover, the click loud in the silence. Then I took pictures of each page of my brilliant first chapter. Perhaps I could use them to revise the entire novel. I could self-publish a new edition. If it got enough sales, a publisher would give me an offer for one of my unsold novels. I might even sell all three of them.
It made me nervous, having my only proof of the book in the form of little pixels on a phone. I scrolled through the pictures to double check.
The first one showed the chair arm and my knees, but no book.
I scrolled to the next one: knees and chair arm, but no book. It was the same on the next picture, and all of the others after that. The book had vanished as completely as a vampire's reflection.
Tears sprang to my eyes. I clutched my book tightly, the edge of the spine digging into my palm.
I couldn't check the book out. I couldn't take a picture of it. There wasn't time to hand copy it. Would I have to steal the book?
My stomach constricted. I was a librarian, attending a librarians' workshop. I couldn't steal a library book.
I tapped the cover, remembering what a colleague had said once. What use did a book serve just sitting on a shelf? Library books were meant to be read and enjoyed. That's why we bought them. If I was the only person who would enjoy this book, why shouldn't I take it?
I glanced around. I didn't even know if I could pull off a theft. No uprights sat by the front door, ready to sound an alarm. It could be that the library had no need for security. Perhaps the book would crumble into leaves once it left the building.
Only one way to find out.
My mouth was dry. My hands tingled as I slipped the book into my shoulder bag. Oh, so casually, I walked to the door. My heart thudded, and my breathing sounded loud in my ears. The librarian still gazed out the windows, drinking in the view of autumn leaves and office workers in jackets and scarves.
Sweat pooled under my arms. I expected an alarm to blare, or the librarian to jump up breathing fire.
I pushed the door release bar.
It didn't open.
I pushed again. The door might have been made of a single sheet of metal for all it budged. I felt my face turn red. I turned towards the librarian.
With the infinitely bored look of a teenager, she held out her hand. "Give it here."
I opened my mouth. I shut it. I thought of that exquisite cover and the deathless prose.
She arched an eyebrow. Her gaze swung to mine. "You can't leave unless you do."
I swallowed. I dug in my bag and drew out the book. The woman on the front cover looked up at me, her face proud and daring. I felt as though I'd been asked to hand over a part of my heart.
The librarian cleared her throat. She made a "hand it over" gesture with her fingers.
I gripped the book with both hands. My colleague's session would be starting soon. I had a job to go back to, a mortgage to pay. That life left no room for the book of my heart.
"Now, please," the librarian drawled. Still bored, she gazed past me, out the window.
No, not bored. The realization came suddenly. She wasn't bored. She wanted to leave the library.
Inspired, I stepped towards her. I hugged my book to my chest. "Let me have your job."
Her gaze, now sharp, swung to me. "What?"
"How long have you been here? When did you last step outside?"
She swallowed. She straightened her spine. "Not just anyone can run a library, you know. You have to be--"
"I'm a librarian! See." I pulled my workshop name badge out of my bag. "I got my degree from Drexel."
"Good school," she murmured, and I breathed a small sigh of relief. If she knew about Drexel she probably hadn't been here for centuries.
"Please," I said. "I'll take good care of the place."
Her gaze scanned my face. "Why?"
I laughed. "Like most librarians, I like books, and I like to read. But what I really want is to be a writer. Here I'll learn from the best novels almost written."
"Don't you have family you'll miss?"
"Not my ex," I admitted. "And my parents. . ." That caused a pang. I breathed deep and wondered how to make this transfer work. "I'm taking your life," I said to the librarian. "Will you take mine?"
She nodded. "That's how this works. I'll take good care of your parents, I swear." She rose from her chair. "It's been thirty years. I can't wait to have family again, and to write my own novel."
Gravely, she handed me her glasses. I slipped my bifocals off and tucked them in my bag. Silently I said goodbye to my parents. Then I handed her my bag and put on her black-rimmed glasses. They smelled faintly of old books. As soon as the earpieces pressed against my skin, the whole of the library unfolded in my mind. So many books to read! So many volumes to care for. When I looked up, I was staring at myself.
"Your parents are sweet," she said, one hand still pressed to the frames of her new bifocals. "Thank you for this chance."
"Good luck to you," I drawled.
She raced out the door. I watched her go. Then I sat down, opened my novel, and began to read. I couldn't wait to see how it ended.