1st Place – April 2021

Libraries of the Lost

By Katie Pierce Farrier

We snuck inside as the snow storm roared into a blizzard. Mikel and Nakia pried the rusted door open with some crowbars. The rest of us shuffled in, half frozen and dead on our feet. We hoped we could make it the last few miles of the mountain pass, but as we neared the outskirts of an Old World city the storm forced us underground.
Our group, down to five survivors collapsed in the doorway. Thankful for the respite from the wind and snow, none of us cared too much about where we ended up. Even Shawna’s husky dogs welcomed the still air of the room. Mikel set up the lanterns, illuminating the cavernous room. The wind gave a loud whine and the building groaned in response. Shawna and I both glanced upwards, wondering if this place would hold through the storm.
Loni, the most experienced of our expedition group, handed out a feast of canned beans and stale tasting water. I scooped up every last drop of my ration, then handed the empty jar to dogs to lick clean. Hunger still gnawed at my stomach, but I knew once the others went to sleep, Loni could be coaxed into sharing her secret store of jerky.
Too keyed up from the storm to sleep, I walked to the edge of the light. The rest of the room vanished into an abyss. Misshapen lumps that might have been piles of trash, or desks, or leftovers from previous occupants lurked in the shadows. A steady draft filtered down like a frigid hand reaching under my shirt. I lined the toe of my boot up with the edges of the shadow. Though never one to shy away from the dark, this last line of light seemed impassable. Loni joined me at the edge. Ever the rebel, she placed one snow covered boot defiantly in the shadow.
“Been through here twice, never seen this place before,” she offered, like discovering a mysterious cavern was an unexpected stroke of fortune. “Want to see what’s in here?”
A part of me wanted to respond with a vehement no. Something tugged at my gut telling me to go back outside, to brave the storm instead of this place.
“Think anybody else is here?”
Loni scoffed the way people immune to frost and fire often do. “This place is only a few miles from the bombings. Nobody’s in this place. Trust me.”
Shwana drifted closer followed by B.G., her wolf- husky hybrid. She too stepped into the shadows. “We checking it out or what?”
Only I remained hesitant to cross that barrier between sight and blind faith. Shwana whistled and B.G. obediently put her nose to the ground. She trotted back and forth to stake out a path. Despite the white of her coat, she soon disappeared. A moment later we heard a short yip signaling that she found a door.
Loni looked at me, a dare in her eyes. She knew I wanted to look, knew I had to be goaded into it. She knew that despite my pretense of caution, I’d be the first one to touch the flame to see if it’s hot.
“When the others are asleep,” I decided.
Loni glanced at Mikel and Nakia huddled together. The other two dogs slumbered at their feet. She nodded in agreement. Shwana, still new to our group, hesitated. I could tell she was considering taking B.G. to explore, but she wasn’t stupid enough to go alone. She whistled and the husky trotted back into view.
Despite the exhaustion that pulled at our limbs, after a day like today, sleep didn’t come easily. Mikel stared down at his hands. Despite his frantic scrubbing, blood caked around his cuticles. Nakia whispered to him and pulled him close, but I’ve seen that look before. It takes more than whispered comforts to chase it away. Before my own demons could sink in their claws, I pulled out my source of comfort.
The paper binding was fragile. Each time I touched it, I found a new tear or crumpled page. I brought the pages to my nose and inhaled the sharp tang of glue, paper and ink. Loni watched me with distrust in her eyes. I’ve read the pages to her before countless times, but like so many others she can’t read the words to verify my recitation. Shwana stared at my book with blatant hunger. Unlike Loni, she learned her letters and a few dozen words. Hidden amongst her things, she has a book too. Though I’ve seen it, I haven’t convinced her to share it yet.
My grandmother used to tell me fairy tales about places filled with books. Words in different languages, stories, pictures, and information about anything and everything. As a child I hung on her words and dreamed of days filled with fantasies and adventures. It wasn’t until I was an adult when she handed me a crumpled stack of blood stained papers that I realized how precious, how dangerous the written word could be.
I traced my hands over the cover page. The two women feigned disinterest, but I knew they were waiting for me to start reading. We heard this story so many times we could all repeat it in our sleep, but the magic remained. Softly, so they had to lean in to hear, I started reading. Some of the pages were missing. For those parts I filled in from memory or embellished with my own ideas. It didn’t take long for Nakia to start listening and even Mikel’s head cocked in my direction. A few more pages and the haunted look in his eyes lifted. A few more pages and they fell asleep.
Loni met my gaze and nodded. I closed the book and tucked it back against my belly where I knew it would be safe. We got to our feet, three ghosts out to explore abandoned ruins. This time stepping into the darkness of the building felt less like a dare and more like a mitzvah.
Shwana’s fingers slipped through mine as we followed B.G. to the door. It took all three of us to pry open it’s rusty hinges. A puff of stale smelling air rushed out, sending Loni into a coughing fit. The undauntable B.G. padded ahead of us, nose to the ground, snuffling in loud happy pants. Loni’s lantern showed an empty corridor. A layer of dust and mold hinted at how long it remained undisturbed. The three of us crept down the hallway. The stale smell intensified as we moved further in. Pictures of politely smiling people in identical outfits frames decorated the hallway.
“What was this place?” Loni whispered, but neither Shwana or I could think of an explanation.
B.G. gave another short yip when she encountered a second door. Smaller, and unencumbered by locks, it opened more easily than the first. This time the gust of air didn’t smell so foul. The smell of dust and mildew lingered, but something familiar belied what awaited us. I recognized the new scent. It was one that I inhaled every chance I got, until my lungs filled with paper and my tongue drowned in ink.
I took the lantern from Loni and stepped inside. This room, even bigger than the first room, stretched before us. My breath caught in my throat. The light caught on rows of shelves and heavy columns. The weight of my feet anchored me to the spot. I didn’t dare to move forward lest the mirage disappear.
Shwana, just as bewildered, gripped my arm. Her fingers rested over her mouth as she stared up in wonder.
“Oh…. my…. god…” she breathed. Such an outdated term, but I couldn’t find any other words to describe the shock of what we stumbled upon.
Slowly, as if the illusion might disappear, I ran my fingers over the spines. Loni, forever steadfast and unflappable, took back the lamp and marched ahead. The swinging light of the lamp faded until Lonie circled back to front of the room.
She shook her head in disbelief, “It goes back about a hundred meters? Maybe more.”
I choked on my words, unable to swallow my disbelief.
Shwana recovered first. “I thought these places were raided and destroyed back in the second wave?”
Lonie shrugged and brought the lamp closer to the densely filled shelves.
Hope sunk its fangs into my heart. Venomous desire unfurled in my blood. Could it be? After so long? I allowed myself a moment of wild imagination. My fingers closed around the nearest treasure. With an easy tug, it pulled free of the rest. I let the weight settle across my fingertips. With a bit of coaxing, the pages peeled apart.
“What’s it say? Can you read it?” Shwana peered over my shoulder.
With a tremble in my voice and anticipation on my lips, I started, “Once upon a time….”

Writers’ workshop and writing group