The double-doors to the Library were sagging off their hinges. I paused before them. The glass panels were either gone or spider-webbed with cracks and the brass plates were mottled green in the flashlight beam. But this was really the only place I wanted to visit before St. Mary's was gone.
"You do know that it's empty." I looked over my shoulder. Nan's voice had taken a strange tone and I couldn't really see her expression.
"I know." I pushed the doors open, flinging them wide. "We're still indexing the shipment from three years back." The one on the right fell right off and clattered to the floor in a cacophony of mixed noises. "Before my time, of course."
She stepped over the wreckage to stand at my side. "I didn't think that they just moved it to another library." Nan pointed her flashlight upward, "I mean, they closed around seven or six years ago. They couldn't have kept it all in here."
Nan was right, the built-in shelves weren't as in bad condition as the doors, but the entire room smelled like mildew and the stale odor of rat piss. The skylight was nothing more than the steel framework of the stained glass lilies that had glittered and gleamed on sunny afternoons and now the moon shone fiercely, waxing gibbous in the night sky.
"Probably kept it in storage." I walked across the center, tapping the librarian's desk as I passed. Something inside it rustled distressingly and I pulled away quickly.
Nan didn't bother to answer me. I knew she was as absorbed with the remnants of this great room; we had spent many hours luxuriating in the thousands of books that used to be kept in this empty cavern. I clambered over the steps to the mezzanine level and dusted my hands off when they touched something that crumbled under my touch.
"Jules!" I turned, and saw her light shimmering in the distance, filtering through the empty shelves. She'd gotten further than I had, all the way where the microfilm archives had been kept. "We've got a live one!"
"What does that even mean?" I bawled back. Nan was clear across the library, and that was no mean distance, my voice was tiny, swallowed up by the expanse. "A live what?"
She didn't answer for a couple of breaths and I was immediately worried. "Nan?" I called. The light that I knew to be Nan bobbed repeatedly, then got closer. I was going to hit her as soon as she got close enough.
There was a wet, spitting sound and the light bounced again. "Sorry, flashlight was in my mouth. Nan stepped into the moonlight carrying what looked like a box. "You will never believe what is in this box."
I took a look behind me, into the depths of the platform I was on. "Can I look at it in a bit? I want to check something out first." It would only take a minute to get to the back wall and that had been waiting longer than whatever Nan had in the box.
"Is it important?" Her voice had that strange note in it again, but when I turned to see, Nan was looking down into the box and pulling sheaves of paper out of it. Huge clouds of dust billowed around her, catching all the available light.
"You tell me when I get back."
The shuffling sounds of paper retreated as I went further into the shelves.
"Miss Julia?" She turned to face the earnestly piping voice, leaning over her desk and down towards the floor. Although her station in the Children's section was hardly as grand as Miss Grommet's, Jules always had such a beastly time trying to help her young readers.
The young girl looked up at her balefully through her thick soda bottle lenses before holding up the book she'd been reading. "Tell me how it ends."
The book in question was a thin, hardback copy of Peter Pan, a particular favorite in the library. According to the records, it was the thirteenth copy the Library had had of the book since they opened, bought only last year to replace the twelfth, which had been lost to a pair of twins and marmalade.
Jules stared at the cover, where Peter himself winked at her roguishly from behind the plastic wrapper. It was very difficult to not see him as Genevieve had pushed the book right in front of her face.
"Tell me how it ends!" Genevieve stamped her foot emphatically into the threadbare carpet.
"Jenny, why do you want me to spoil the story for you?" She stepped out from behind her desk, walked the two steps down to the library level and knelt in front of the little girl.
Genevieve was only six and Jules was often afraid that if she didn't handle the girl well, she'd ruin her for the rest of her life. The girl's mother dropped her off there at one o'clock in the afternoon, everyday, before hurrying off to do some adult business. Jenny was a pet name she'd given the girl who often tailed her around the Library when she wasn't at her table.
"I don't want t'read the rest if Wendy leaves Peter." Jenny's lower lip trembled, making her two chins wobble in concert.
Julia opened her mouth once, then closed it, and then tried again. "Don't you want to find out what happens on your own?"
"No!" Genevieve stamped her foot harder. "I hate you!" She burst into tears and Jules could do nothing but watch the girl as she wailed. It was expressly forbidden to touch the children.
"Jenny, Jenny, don't cry!" She said desperately, knowing that whatever she said would have no effect. "I just don't believe in spoiling the ending, that's all." She searched her pockets for a clean piece of tissue, but only found a receipt for her morning's coffee.
"Jenny, Wendy leaves Peter."
Genevieve immediately stopped in mid-sob, looking over Julia's shoulder with watery eyes and a suspicious expression.
"Wendy decides to go back home and be with her family." Nan said from behind Julia's back. She leaned over the other woman's shoulders, and wiped the girl's tears with a white, lacy handkerchief. "She grows up, and has a daughter named Jane, blow," and Genevieve miraculously followed, trumpeting wetly into the piece of cloth.
"And then Jane grows up, but she has a daughter too, named Margaret." Genevieve hiccupped while Julia tried to not look like an idiot as she looked over her shoulder and above as Nan continued to serenely spoil the young girl for the entire book. "And Margaret becomes Peter's friend, until she grows up too."
"Does her daughter become Peter's friend?" Genevieve asked.
Nan smiled, "Peter will always have friends as long as there are girls who want to be his friend." They both watched as Genevieve scampered away, certain that her book of the day would not end too badly.
Julia dusted her knees off, "That," she said as she got off the floor, "was cheating."
"Nah." Nan straightened Jules' blouse and tucked an errant strand of hair back behind her friend's ears. "So why did you want me to come over after work?" She sat on the edge of the high desk, and began to inspect the paperwork left unfinished on the top.
Direct and to the point, that was her Nan. Jules cleared her throat, then said, "When's the last time you went to St. Mary's?"
I made my way further down. The shelves were all still in their places; I had hoped that that would be the case. When I'd found the crate of St. Mary's books in the library I worked in, I was immediately worried that they'd taken everything apart.
Back in high school, I'd volunteered to spend my afternoons helping the librarians out, so I knew pretty much everything about the inner workings of St. Mary's Repository of Knowledge.
It took great moral fortitude to say the name with a straight face, something that the no-nonsense women who'd manned the place had in great supply. However, they were more disinclined to other virtues like cleanliness, a manic tendency towards which the other nuns had, and they never dusted anything.
This one thing greatly endeared them to me as it allowed me to use the back shelves as a sort of storage locker. There was a particular set that I favored since no one ever checked books out of them or even browsed the section.
In hindsight, I should have just become a librarian from the get go. I would have saved myself a lot of time and trouble.
The second half of my senior year was hazy at best. I'd had some difficulty with my roommate and spent the entire time afterward just waiting for the year to end. There were a lot of things I'd left undone, completely forgotten by the wayside of my teenage angst.
And, here, in the depths of shelves Z662 through Z1000.5, was of them.
"Z695, Z690, Z688." Here. I knelt to the floor and steeled myself. It hadn't been pleasant to put my hand underneath the shelves ten years ago, and I could only imagine what kind of new and horrible debris had been added since then.
It may not even be there at all.
"Jules!" God, she couldn't even wait five minutes. I heard the thump as she landed onto the same floor and sighed. Nan shone her flashlight back and forth, blinding me as she searched.
"I'm over here." I sighed. She was going to see it anyway. It didn't really matter whether it was sooner than later.
Nan walked over quickly, holding a sheaf of the papers she'd been looking through. "Have you got it?"
"I was about to."
"Good." She pressed something on her wrist and the time glowed green. "It's already ten in the evening." Nan sat beside me on the filthy wooden floor. "I don't want to stay here until midnight." She handed me what she was carrying.
"I can barely read the print on these things." I brought the first page closer to my eyes. It was pretty hard to read anything in the orange glare of my flashlight and the yellow, damp-spotted pages were a challenge. "By conducting my hands," I read slowly, my eyes tripping over the letters, "to a pair of breasts-" I stopped, my cheeks suddenly warm in the night air.
Nan took the pages again. "To a pair of breasts that hung loosely down, in a size and volume that full sufficiently distinguished her sex," She paused, "To me at least, who had never made any other comparison."
"What was that box labeled as?" I said thickly.
"Smut, box 6." She said with relish as she handed me the page. "That's from Fanny Hill, the rest of it is in the box." Nan smiled widely, "I always wondered why all the good books were so short."
I went through the rest of the pages, "Our library had first editions of these books! Why didn't they just ban them instead of ripping the porn out?" I felt my gut churn with the idea of boxes and boxes similar to these filled with hundreds of pages.
"There are even some pages from art books." Nan took the pages from my nerveless fingers. "All Renaissance paintings, naked women and men and so forth." She was taking an unhealthy delight in my surprise. "If anyone would have noticed, it should have been you, Jules."
Besides the unspeakable emasculation of hundreds of books, there were thousands of students who'd gone through St. Mary's libraries. I was one of them. "Now, I have to re-read all these books." I hit my head with my palm. "They just left all this paper in the back?"
"Yup. Huddled around each other in Librarian's Lounge."
Well, it was no wonder the librarians didn't clean, they were too busy ripping pages. "Oh, yeah." I shoved the bunch of paper into Nan's hands. "Give me a sec."
Nan held my hair up from the floor when I bent over. "Anything you find's going to be a bit anti-climactic after this."
"Porn is always exciting," I agreed. As I groped blindly, my fingers got caught on cobwebs and dust bunnies as they felt for the plastic packet I'd taped there so many years ago.
There'd been another girl, for Nan anyway, back when they were both in university. It wasn't as though Jules had been overwhelmingly jealous about the whole thing.
For a time, the only thing she'd felt was surprise.
It had happened so quickly. To Jules, it felt like one moment she was reading a textbook and haranguing Nan about the Psychology class they'd enrolled in together, and the next her friend was ducking out of studying to shuttle the girl around.
That's what Jules called her anyway. The Girl. She had one of those perfectly adorable names that tripped off the tongue, Ginger, and it pleased Julia enormously to pick tiny fights with Nan about calling The Girl by her given name.
"The girl," Julia continued, as she erased a whole column of numbers out of her spreadsheet.
"That girl," She said as she brushed the bits of eraser into the garbage.
"God damn it, her name is Ginger."
"Fine, Ginger, hasn't returned my CD. You know, the one you lent her without asking my permission?" Julia got off her chair, giving up on Accounting 101 for the meantime, and removed her elastic headband, wincing as the blood flowed back into her head.
Nan made room for her on the bed. "I'll ask her for it when I see her again." She patted the pillow back into shape so that Jules wouldn't hurt herself when she fell face first onto the thin mattress.
"You'd better." Jules' voice was muffled, like she was trying to drown herself in the bedding.
They lay in a companionable silence for a minute, Nan just staring at the ceiling and trying to nap to get over her last class. She propped herself up on her elbow and poked Jules in the side. "Why do you always put off your accounting homework until the night before?"
"Hoping that it goes away." Jules put her face on its side, pouting slightly, "What about it?"
"It's a Friday afternoon, four in the afternoon even," Nan pulled the comforter over the both of them. "And you're stuck in your dorm room while everyone else is getting ready for whatever stupidity they've got planned for the night."
"Where are you taking Ginger tonight?"
Nan shot her a Look, no mean feat from less than three inches away. "We're going to a party." She tucked Jules closer towards her, and the other girl sank onto her shoulder gratefully. "You were invited to this party too."
"The Krazy Freshman Kegger?"
"You don't need to say it like that." She started to comb out Julia's hair with her fingers, "Jules, you smell like ass."
Jules dug her chin into Nan's collarbone but didn't disagree.
"You smell like a wet towel that was left in the laundry."
"Ngh," You're horrible, Jules meant, but she was too busy enjoying the feeling of being curled up in bed, listening to Nan's disapproval rumble through her chest.
Nan continued to card the snarled tangles around her fingers, working the worst knots apart with practiced ease. The companionable silence came back, this time for a bit longer as they both fell asleep to Ananda's rhythmic movements.
It was well into the evening when Jules woke up, Nan still wrapped around her in that familiar position. It felt like pressing an old bruise, waking up like that, Nan breathing calmly into her neck with both arms securely around Jules' midsection.
"Why am I always the little spoon?" She said to cover the fact that she was having a hard time breathing.
"Because you're short. And dependent." Nan said directly into her ear.
Jules turned in Nan's arms, "And you're a possessive jerk with boundary issues." She cleaved closer, slipping her leg between the other girl's. "You're going to miss the kegger."
Ananda slid her palm up the back of her shirt, rubbing small circles into her shoulder blades. "That's true."
"And Ginger's going to be pissed." Jules was getting cross-eyed from being so close to Nan's face. "And I've heard her when she's pissed. All the dogs heard her too."
She closed her eyes as Nan pulled her shirt off. The other girl licked a stripe across her collarbone, "Ginger who?"
"Nan." Julia pushed her off, "Don't get me wrong, I'm going to enjoy this, but you've got a girlfriend." She didn't gasp as Nan brushed over her chest, thumbs catching over her breasts, but it was a close thing.
Nan didn't say anything, too preoccupied with mapping Julia's body out with her mouth. Jules' body had a calming effect, old tastes and textures that reminded her of being home.
The windows had been left open, and she could hear the sounds coming off the avenue. The room was bathed in streetlight orange and the evening breeze, bright and cold enough that it was easy to do anything but stop.
"It's just a pair of earrings." Nan held them up disbelievingly. "They're not even adult earrings."
They glinted red in her fingers, little lacquered drops that glowed warmly against her skin. "Hey, they were cool when we were younger."
"I don't get it," she said, "why are they important to you?" She slipped them on, rubbing them as they swung with every movement of her head. "I mean, they're pretty but they're barely memorable."
They looked wonderful on her, exactly as I thought they would when I bought them. "Hey, I spent months saving up for those." I traced the line they drew against her neck, tricked into smiling just by the way they hung on her ears.
She stilled, tilting her head into my touch. "Were these for me then?"
"It's why I spent all that time working here."
Nan drew me upward, kissing me on the forehead. "Christmas gift," she said, "You made me drive here to get a Christmas gift."
I stood up, brushing my legs off, "Unfinished business." I'd seen them with her in town, the summer before senior year. She'd stopped and looked at them for a good long minute, and that was rare for her, so I'd remembered. "It's a bit of a let-down, I know."
"I really didn't have an idea what we were getting," She got up as well, picking up the pages. "So I'm not disappointed or anything."
I started to leave, it was getting a little cramped in there. "I just remembered them when I saw the article in the paper about the school being knocked down."
She caught up quickly, "Jules, slow down," Nan slung an arm around my shoulders as soon as we were clear of the shelves.
In front of us, the library looked emptier than it had earlier. The bare shelves on the lower floor seemed like echoes in the large room and everything there seemed cold in the moonlight.
"I thought that you wouldn't remember them," I said, clearing my suddenly dry throat, "It was in senior year, I'd bought them for you with all the money I'd earned in the library."
Nan drifted on the balustrade as we walked down, "I figured it was then." She held my hand, "But why did you have to come all the way back?"
I shrugged, "I just didn't want it to stay under the rubble."
"And it was from when we were together." Ananda considered me, hair glinting in the beam of her flashlight. It was evil how knowing someone for so long made them adept at reading your mind. "You bought them for our first Christmas as a couple."
"Yeah." We stopped in the middle of the library. "And then you broke up with me, requested a room change from the matron and didn't speak to me until after graduation." I coughed, it was getting a bit hard to breathe.
She let go of my hand, "I thought we weren't going to bring that up again. You promised." It was times like these that it was suddenly easy to remember that Nan was a good half-foot taller than me.
"You asked!" I coughed again, "I wasn't bringing it up at all."
Nan grabbed my shoulder, "Is this what coming here was about?" She shook me a little and I pushed her off with more effort than I thought I needed to, knocking her flashlight to the floor.
"Nan, let me explain" I could hardly breathe anymore, "It's just hard-"
"It's always hard!" She pushed me a little meanly, "Nan, let's visit the school!, Nan, it's going to be knocked down!" She shoved me again, "Nan, it would be a waste to not see it again." Nan looked furious
"It's hard to breathe!" I gasped finally, before my throat closed completely.
""To a girl who doesn't care for poetry," Nan had said at the front of the class, blonde plaits hanging stoutly to her shoulders, "One day they'll lay you out and then, nothing of you will be left behind."
She had looked up at Jules then, pinned her to her seat with a quick, sharp glance before continuing, "Because you don't like listening, to sweet words in rhythm, you'll flit, through the houses of dust forever," Nan raised her eyebrows meaningfully, "Indistinct among the other shades."
Jules waited until Nan was seated in front of her before pulling on the one braid that flopped down her back. "There is nothing wrong with liking prose more than poetry," she hissed.
The nun teaching them World Literature was engaged in correcting another student's reading of another Neruda poem. There were only so many books on poetry in the library and it was inevitable that some authors be run ragged. Nan had been the tenth to read Sappho; a predictably common choice in an all girl's school.
Jules had picked D.H. Lawrence, mangling A Spiritual Woman by failing to pause in the right places. Sister Mary Lucille had enjoyed it, if only because she spent ten minutes lecturing about how one shouldn't pick poems that one couldn't understand.
Julia just wanted the semester on poetry to be over.
The bell rang in the middle of a particularly cheerful rendition of Annabel Lee. Everyone sprang up for prayers, Literature class came right before lunch and there wasn't a single student in the class who wanted to sit through the next four stanzas of the poem.
Nan crossed herself quickly, then sidled up to her classmate. Jules was walking quickly down the hallway to the cafeteria, breaking the land speed record for Mary Janes in a school corridor. "You have to admit, it's pretty apt." She slung her arm around the other girl, "I have never heard another girl speak so harshly against some pretty words."
"What do you want, Potts?" Jules shrugged the arm off with a careless motion that threatened to tip them both over. "I already helped you with your homework."
They entered the cafeteria and were immediately assaulted by the hissing buzz of a thousand girls whispering to their friends. The nuns insisted on having their students keep their voices low, and the effect was rather like waves lapping on a beach of bees.
"I want you to be my partner for the term paper." Nan dropped her bag on a table and sat down, clearly expecting the other girl to do the same, but Julia sneered and tossed her brown hair as best she could and stomped away.
The sound Nan made as she scrambled over the attached benches was very unladylike, and a nun swooped in immediately to assign her a detention clapping erasers. She took the slip and stuffed it into her pocket. "Hey, Jules, wait up!"
"I don't want to work with you!" Jules hissed, "I barely know who you are."
Nan rolled her eyes and dragged the girl to another empty table. "We've been classmates for years now. Of course you know who I am." She really had no idea why the other girl seemed to hate her. Even though they hadn't really been friends or spoken at all before last week, there was no need to be rude.
"You made fun of me! With a Sapphic poem!"
"Well, it was funny." Nan signaled a passing lunch lady and asked for the chicken, "What do you want?"
"Fish," Jules said, still surly. It was one thing to be righteously indignant, but a completely different thing to pass up lunch when they only had forty-five minutes to eat until five in the afternoon.
The lunch nun pulled the plates out of their respective shelves on the trolley and put them on the red plastic surface together with a pack of fruit juice each before rolling off. Meals at St. Mary's were tightly controlled and the nuns prepared and served every plate themselves.
"The thing is," Ananda uncovered her plate, "Ew, beans, do you like green beans?"
Julia rolled her eyes and uncovered her own food, "I've got carrot sticks."
"Oh, good." Nan leaned over and snagged a piece and bit into it.
"Hey!" Julia speared a bean in self-defense. Ananda didn't mind.
"The thing is," She said as she swallowed the carrot, "I think we'll work well together. You've got an unnatural addiction to words printed on paper, and I'm very good at public speaking."
I remember the first time this happened. No, it didn't happen in the library. I had come to in the girl's bathroom, right after Nan and I had finished our first class presentation together. I didn't even remember making it out in the hallway, much less down the corridor into the bathroom.
The trick is, Nan had told me then, all pale and trembling with the idea that I was half-dead and that our clinic was so far away, is that you just needed to calm down and have a shot from your inhaler.
But I don't have an inhaler. The doctor says they barely work on me. The tiles had been cool against my palms and Nan's hand had been warm on my chest. She had tried to loosen my school tie.
A beat. Well, maybe the barely working thing has to go in conjunction with not having a panic attack, Nan had tossed me the shiny plastic disc, And Deirdre says you can have her emergency inhaler, she has extras.
So, in conclusion, I always bring my inhaler with me. Especially when I'm with Nan, most especially when I'm going to be tramping through an abandoned building with Nan.
All these things ran through my head as Nan is patted me down, looking for where I put it this time. I'd fallen to the floor. I could tell because my side hurt and my head was on her lap. I was still able to wheeze, each breath a rough whistle, so it couldn't really be that bad. My throat wasn't as clenched tightly as I had thought it was, but that was changing as each exhale became shorter and shorter.
"The trick is," Nan said, rummaging in my bag, "pretend you're purposely holding your breath as long as you possibly can."
I could hear the small, violent movements she was making, even the clink of my keys on the tile we'd gotten downstairs. There was nothing I could do but stare up into the skylight and try to calm down.
I knew that something would probably relax a little if I did, but I already felt my thoughts getting caught on the cotton wool of oxygen deprivation, and I could see the blue dye running beneath the surface the tiles, holding the floor of St. Mary's down with lilies. A whole field of blue lilies, as far as the horizon, and I could almost smell their heavy fragrance.
"Here!" She put the inhaler to my mouth and it knocked on my teeth, "Breathe."
I tried, I really did, but the most I could summon was a tiny gasp. It must have been enough to force the powder out of the inhaler though. A few seconds later, I felt the familiar loosening in my body. I took my first, shaky breath.
"Jesus." Nan pulled the inhaler away and wiped the mouthpiece on her sleeve. "Can you sit up yet?" I could see how round her eyes were, pale white and fierce blue as she watched me.
I cleared my throat, "Dizzy." I tried to get up though, pushing off of her. "No water?"
"You've got half a bottle in your bag." She pulled it out and uncapped it before handing it over. "I don't know how long you've had it though." Nan still looked panicked, but I could tell she was trying to not sound like she was. She was trying to keep me calm.
I gulped it down quickly. "Convenient." I made to screw the cover on and put it back in my bag but she just took it and tossed it over her shoulder. It bounced hollowly, then disappeared into the gloom.
Nan pressed her cheek against my forehead, enveloping me in a hesitant embrace. "You still in the mood to die?"
"Never am." I moved to stand up, but she gripped me hard enough to bruise. "I think I can get up now." Before the exhaustion came up. I didn't know why, but my asthma attacks always left me tired, every muscle just limp and screaming.
Nan relaxed but didn't let go. I looked up to tell her to stop but I was caught by her expression. Ananda was relieved, that much I could tell, and she had a fond look on her face. "I get so angry at you sometimes."
I watched the earrings swing gently against her hair. Then, I realized that she was bending down towards me, her eyes closing.
When she kissed me, I felt her hand tangling into my hair, warm and solid at my nape.
The sun was rising high above us. It was as orange as the yolk from a freshly cracked egg and the sky was just as perfectly cloudless, glimmering over the world. We were driving towards the horizon, and I could see the hazy purple of the city in the distance, too far to distinguish buildings but close enough to feel like home.
Nan had insisted that we leave immediately when we'd gotten out sometime past midnight. She'd still been carrying the crumpled pages from the library, too sure that I needed to get to a hospital. I had them on my lap now, the only pages we'd been able to save. I hadn't bothered asking if we could go back.
But I had asked if she wouldn't mind waiting a bit longer, just to begin the last day. I'd just needed to see it end. She'd understood, compromising by letting her arm hang over my shoulders protectively. We'd stayed in the car, doors open and half sticking to each other in the early morning humidity, until false dawn hovered behind us.
Like always, the cross had been the first to light up, its thorny brambles warmer than I'd ever seen them.
We'd pulled away just as the buses arrived, filled to the brim with sleepy workmen ready to knock everything down. Nan and I hadn't stuck around to explain, just driven off before they could even have asked anything. We'd long outdistanced the rumbling of the machines.
It was warm for the time of the year, but we had the windows rolled down just so we could breathe in the clean, grassy smell of Shipton's limits.
Everything was jewel-bright, Nan's blue eyes glistening like aquamarine whenever she looked at me. It was difficult to take my eyes off the whipping, pale gold of her hair and the tilted coral pink of her lips.
"I love you," she said over the roar of the wind, "I think I love you a whole fucking lot." Red lights sparkled off her ear and I could scarcely breathe for love of her.
"I guess I'll keep you then." Not that I've ever had a doubt about that, despite everything that had happened. I buckled my seatbelt in over the beating of my heart, "I bet you can't make the city in half the time.
Nan laughed too loud, changing gears in the same breath. I held onto my seat as we sped down the only road away from St. Mary's.
Completed November 21 2008: 11711 words