Balancing the stack of books with my chin, I had almost reached the door to Knoxville’s library when a voice said, “So, Caity, you came after all.”
I looked up. A man leaned against the red brick wall, clad in the flowing robes of an Oxford don. The dark eyes scrutinizing me betrayed a scholar’s wisdom and a brother’s friendly interest.
I laughed at him, unafraid. “Of course I came, Jack. You know how much I hate library fines.”
He nodded, holding out his arms for my books, but I shook my head. “Men don’t carry books for women anymore, Jack. I’ll do it myself.”
He held the door for me instead.
As I dropped my books into the slot at the front desk, I asked, “So what’s with the robes, Jack? You’re not usually this stiff and formal. Is something wrong?”
He shook his head. “No. No, nothing’s wrong. I have something I want to show you, that’s all.”
“Follow me,” he said, walking upstairs.
At the top he made a sweeping gesture with his arms. “What do you see?” he asked.
“Books,” I replied.
“Um … children’s books?”
“Correct! Do you see any you recognize?”
“Well,” I said, wandering along the shelves, “I see … Pinkerton!” Excited, I pulled out a book about the lovable Great Dane, and opened it to see the pictures. “These were my favorites when I was little,” I said. “Did you know I actually got to meet the author, Steven Kellogg? I can’t remember his appearance, but I’ll always remember the pictures he drew for us.”
“An important memory,” Jack agreed. “Now, what about the books further on?”
“Oh, these are favorites, too,” I said. “‘Bandit’s Moon,’ ‘Little Women,’ ‘King of the Wind,’ and of course your books, Jack. There was a time when I was always in Narnia. But what is this all about?”
“You once made these books part of your life,” Jack said. “They helped form you into the person you are today. Now, let’s look at another section,” he said, beginning to sink through the floor.
“Wait!” I cried. “I can’t go downstairs that way.”
Jack winked at me, his chin resting on the carpet. “You’ll know where to find me when you get down,” he said, disappearing.
I did know. Jogging downstairs, I headed straight to the back of the adult fiction section, to the shelves marked T-Z.
Jack was there, talking to another older man. “Tolkien,” Jack said, “let me present my friend, Miss….”
“We’ve met,” I said, shaking Tolkien’s proffered hand.
“Another step on your journey,” Jack nodded. “Do you know anyone else?”
I glanced around. “Well, I see Charles Dickens, and O. Henry. There’s James Fenimore Cooper, George MacDonald, Jane Austen….”
“Yes,” Jack interrupted, “All very wonderful authors. Now,” he said, beckoning, “Come this way.”
I followed him to another section of books, all but deserted.
“Teen Fiction,” Jack said. “Do you recognize anyone?”
“Is that Nathaniel Hawthorne?” I whispered, pointing to a thin, pale man leaning against a bookcase.
“Why is he so sickly?”
“Look at his shelf,” Jack said.
I scanned the titles. “Here’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’” I said, “right next to ‘Rash,’ ‘Kissing Doorknobs,’ and ‘Born Confused.’”
“Trash!” Nathaniel muttered. “Can’t compare to my classic.”
“Now wait,” I said. “There are good books here. What about ‘The Blue Sword.’ I love that book.”
“Would you encourage others to read it?” Jack asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “Though I’d have to warn them about…. Um … well,” I blushed.
“I understand,” Jack said. “But that’s why these authors appear so sickly. Even if their books are clean, they’re surrounded by others that aren’t. And if these books make us sick, what are they doing to the young men and women who read them?”
“But what can I do?” I asked.
“What you are already doing. You must write. You must fill one of the empty spaces.”
“Look at these shelves,” Jack said. “Are they full?”
“No. There’s still room.”
“Each empty place is waiting for a book to fill it.”
“Yes. Yours, and those of your friends, and of people you will never know, until the end of time. The question is, will your book bring light to the darkness surrounding these shelves, and hope to those who read it?”
“I’d like it to.”
“Good,” Jack said, shrugging out of his robes. “That’s what I hoped you would say.”
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