A Book to Return
You really should return this library book. But that’s going to be a little difficult now. You look at the hardcover book you’re clutching, surprisingly light for how large it is. Then you look up at the smouldering remains of the library building. Your legs tremble slightly, and you sit down on the side of the street, placing the book carefully on your lap. Best to take care of it. This library has already lost so much.
Thoughts swirl in your mind. Everything had happened so fast. A shout. An alarm. Some people carefully leaving the building. Others panicking and crying out. Then everything becomes a blur. Next thing you remember, you were standing outside, watching firefighters struggle to contain the blaze. Your face feels numb and cold. The rest of you... actually, you don’t seem to feel very much of anything. This must be what shock feels like. You’ve read about it before.
A firefighter walks past you, with overalls blackened with soot and detritus from the fire. You look up.
“Excuse me?” you try.
But she walks straight by without acknowledging you. It’s ok. She must be exhausted. How long have you even been here? You look down the street. Perhaps you should head home. No good staying here, after all. You look down again, at the book. You really need to do something about it. Maybe you can find somewhere else to return it to?
You stand and take a last look at the remains of the library, before turning to leave.
You walk into your apartment. Placing the book down on the kitchen counter, you sit down on a kitchen stool. You should feel exhausted after everything you’ve been through, but you still don’t feel anything at all.
You make a cup of tea, and place it on the counter next to the book. Steam rises from the cup into the cool air, and you sit and watch it awhile, admiring the intricate swirls of vapour in the air. How strange and beautiful, this existence is. A car drives by outside, its headlights briefly flooding the room with pallid yellow light.
A thought occurs to you. You look for your phone. Still there by the bedside. People are always telling you off for never carrying it with you. What’s the point, they’d say, of having a mobile phone only to leave it at home. You smile fondly at the thought as you check what’s on screen. 27 missed calls and a string of text messages. You frown. People must want to check that you’re alright. As you’re looking at your phone, it surprises you by lighting up and starting to buzz. The name Ally appears on screen. You answer.
“Hello?” The voice sounds a little crackly and strangely distant.
“Ally!” you gasp, “oh, you would not believe what happened today. I still feel so shaken by it, and—“
“Hello?” She asks again, cutting you off mid-sentence.
“Hello? Ally?” You frown. “Can you hear me?”
You hear her say something to someone else but can’t quite catch what it is before she hangs up. The other person sounded upset though, whoever they were.
With a sigh, you leave the phone by the bed where you found it and head back to the kitchen. Maybe the network is having problems, or the phone isn’t working properly. Again. This is why you never bother to carry it.
You sit back down in the kitchen. You still can’t shake this surreal, numb feeling inside you. It’s probably normal after a traumatic event like that, you suppose. You look again at the book. There’s another library in town. Perhaps you could take it there? That seems like your best option. They’re bound to know what to do. You resolve to head there in the morning.
Time passes, and you make another cup of tea. And then another. And another. The cups start to accumulate. You can take care of those later. You’re unsure how long you’ve been sitting there, surrounded now by your little fortress of teacups. You really should try to get some rest, but you don’t feel tired at all. You stay in the kitchen for now. You make another cup of tea.
The following morning, you find yourself at the city’s other library. You place the book on the counter and stand by it quietly, waiting for the man behind the desk to notice you. But he doesn’t look up from his computer screen.
Eventually, you tire of waiting. “Excuse me?” you ask.
He still doesn’t look up.
“I have this book from the other library,” you try, “and I’m not sure where I should return it.”
Still no response. Quietly, he stands up and walks away from the counter.
You frown. That seemed a little rude. Was he wearing headphones, maybe? You didn’t see. Could he have been deaf? You’re unsure. You never normally use this library, and you don’t know the staff here.
With a shrug, you leave the book on the counter. You snatch up a scrap of paper and a pen and hastily write a note, which you leave on top of the book, for whoever might find it, before turning to leave.
By the entrance to the library is a large board. A memorial, with bouquets of flowers carefully laid in front of it. There are people’s names and photographs pinned up. These must be all the people who didn’t survive the fire.
Sombre, you look over the names, fearful of whether anyone you know was caught in the blaze. Then you notice it. A small, green piece of paper with your name written on it.
You frown and stagger backwards. What? No. No, that’s not right. You’re right here. You escaped from the fire. You’re—
You turn, and find two librarians looking deeply confused at the book you left on the library counter, and the mysterious handwritten note sitting on top of it. They look like they’ve seen a ghost.