“Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it.”

Bailey strolled up and down the library’s aisles with ease, picking up the books she hadn’t noticed before and reading the last few pages. She knew that any book worth reading was a book with an interesting ending. Without a second glance, Bailey would re-stock the “boy gets the girl and they live happily-ever-after” stories and the “he found himself after struggling with who he was becoming,” for the entire novel and would instead stow away the stories where “the girl gets the boy because the boy literally gave her his heart” and the ones where the “boy spends the rest of his life in a downward spiral because the identity he found made him an outcast in society.”

There was a limitless possibility of characters, plots, and endings, and Bailey was always looking for something outside of the expected.

She wondered from section to section: from mystery to biographies to romance to science fiction. Bailey never spent too long in the science fiction section, but today was different. She picked up a small paperback book with an octopus on its cover. She skimmed the ending pages, and couldn’t find the power to put it down. She checked over her shoulders, to make sure her supervisor was nowhere in sight, plopped onto the floor, and opened the book to page one.

“I didn’t think I would find you here,” a stern voice announced from the end of the aisle.

“Ms. Sutton,” Bailey stammered as she quickly sprung to her feet, “I’m so sorry. I was just,”

“Reading. I saw,” Ms. Sutton responded. “But aren’t you normally over in the mystery section?”

“I thought I would try something new today.”

“How about you try working,” Ms. Sutton griped. “You can read all the books you want on your free time.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bailey replied too afraid to make eye contact with her supervisor. Instead, she kept her eyes glued to her shoes.

“Back to work, now,” Ms. Sutton offered with a snap before turning away from Bailey and her new book.

Bailey waited until Ms. Sutton had disappeared behind rows of books before she cracked open the novel again. She had worked at this library since she was sixteen and she knew that her boss was all bark and no bite. Once Bailey was certain that Ms. Sutton was gone, she turned her attention back to her new novel.

“Didn’t she tell you to get back to work?” A voice joked from behind Bailey.

“Mark!” Bailey exclaimed before throwing her book down and rushing over to embrace her oldest friend. “How long has it been?”

“15 years, I think. How are you?”

“I’m okay,” Bailey started, “still working at the same place since high school as you can see,” she chuckled as she gestured to the rows of books surrounding her.

“So, you’re still reading the books instead of stocking them?” Mark laughed.

“Maybe,” Bailey blushed, “so what are you doing back in town?”

“I needed to get away for a bit,” he answered nervously.

“What did you need to get away from?”

“Nothing,” he snapped, “what happened to your plans of getting out of here and seeing the world, huh?”

“Plans change,” Bailey started turning back towards the books on her cart that needed to be stocked, “mom got sick, dad left, so I had to stay.”

“You didn’t have a reason to leave.”

“But a million to stay,” she nearly whispered to herself, “but I am happy here,” Bailey lied trying to convince both Mark and herself.

“I bet if this library didn’t exist you wouldn’t have a reason to stay.”

“I would find another job here,” she offered.

“No. You would leave,” Mark corrected her, “I know you. You’re only here because you feel like this place, this library connects you to this town. To your mom.” He paused, letting his words fall heavily on Bailey’s shoulders. “This was your place with her. You two would come here to heal heartbreaks, to spend time together, to celebrate achievements, and just because it was Tuesday. How long has it been now?”

“4 years,” Bailey whispered as a single tear slid down her cheek.

Mark took Bailey’s hand and pulled her in close. They stood together, holding each other, while Bailey cried. He leaned down to kiss Bailey’s forehead before turning to exit the library. He offered a solemn goodbye. She told him to stay in touch, but both knew that they would probably never see each other again. They always seemed to drift past each other, neither of them on the same path as the other. Bailey allowed the tears to swell in her dark brown eyes as she watched Mark walk away.

Mark was the first boy she had ever kissed and her mom had always told her that she thought Mark would be her last. Bailey could never admit it out loud, but she had always thought he’d be her last, too. Bailey wiped her face, offered a faint shrug, and returned to work. As the days went on, Bailey found her way back to her routine before Mark.

One day, after the library had closed, Bailey was stocking the archived books in the attic when she began to faintly smell smoke. At first, she thought nothing of it. Maybe someone was smoking outside or someone had thrown a match in the garbage can. She shook it off and resumed stocking the books, but she couldn’t help but notice that the smell was getting stronger. Then, her eyes began to burn and she started to cough. Bailey knew something was wrong.  She turned her eyes upwards and saw the smoke: smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it.

She hurried down the attic’s ladder and found herself surrounded by a blazing fire. Bailey screamed. She began to pat her pockets in search of her cellphone but realized that it wasn’t on her. She must have left it in the attic. She stood at the bottom of the ladder, as the fire began to burn closer to her, contemplating if she should head back to the attic or wait for help. Bailey could faintly hear the sounds of sirens outside, so she tried to protect her face and eyes until someone could reach her. Why would someone do this? How did something like this happen? Then, it hit her.

Bailey pulled the sci-fi book out of her back pocket and stared at its cover. Then, the conversation with Mark came flooding back. Without this library, Bailey would have a reason to leave. But, before she could let her thoughts spiral out of control, Bailey passed out. She collapsed to the ground with a crash that no one could hear because she was alone.

Police officers and hospital personnel were surrounding Bailey when she finally woke up. They all started talking and asking questions at once. Bailey could barely process what they were saying and what was happening. The last thing she remembered was looking at the cover of her book thinking that Mark must have been the one to do this. Her suspicions were confirmed when the police told her that Mark was their person of interest.

Bailey didn’t have to wonder if they were right or wrong. She already knew the answer.

Her friend was gone. Her library was gone. And in just a few moments, her entire life was gone. Bailey would have to start over. She knew that was exactly what Mark had intended for Bailey. He wanted a new life for her. He had always been the person to make things happen for her. She was timid, but Mark was always brave. He was always encouraging her to try something new, to do something different, to live larger than she had ever imagined or thought possible. Maybe this was just his way of doing that again: maybe this was his way of helping her, of freeing her from the life she was trapped in.

 

 

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