One Book at the Time – Short Story

When she started out, many months before, she had never thought she’d be able to pull it off. But she was no longer afraid.

There had been times she had almost given up. All the lying, the sneaking around. But today she once more managed to continue to smile to whoever she met. Walking in and out. Slowly, but not too slow. Making sure not to catch any attention 

Today was her last day. Her final day. It all came down to these last three, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and Flatland by Edwin Abbott. When she started out, many months before, she had never thought she’d be able to pull it off. But she was no longer afraid. As the months passed, as her visits to the library remained unnoticed, her boldness had grown beyond proportions she had ever dreamt of. At first she had taken just one book at the time. Maybe she had gotten sloppy as the month passed and nobody ever stopped her. Her own house was filled to the brim with books by now, carefully sorted and catalogued over the months. Her collection was pretty much complete. Except for these these three slim, but weighty classics.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so careless, on her last day, taking such a big risk by taking these three all at once. She had grown complacent. She didn’t even think about being discovered anymore. But just as she passed the service desk, she realised she had overlooked one crucial element. There was this new woman standing behind the desk. Alice was sure she hadn’t seen this woman before.

“Excuse me, mam.”

Alice moved her head to her right, looking around as if she didn’t know who had catapulted those deadly words into the space, knowing full well that it was that newbie. Perhaps the newbie didn’t know yet that it was perfectly normal to visit the library without being a member. She had every right to be here even if she choose not to borrow books.

“Mam, could you please step towards the desk please?”

The woman was probably not much older than she was. A bright yellow dress that was buttoned up to the top, short blond hair laying flat on her head. Any minute now a bald spot may spontaneously form itself, Alice thought, and she had to stop herself from laughing. The woman looked stern, gathering about her all the authority she could muster.

Alice felt sorry for her. It was probably one of those women whose husband had recently left her, whose children didn’t feel like talking to her anymore and who volunteered at the library to renew a sense of belonging. Perhaps this was the only thing she had in her life, and bossing around people at the library was her only joy left in life.

“Is something amiss?” Alice put up her innocent face, happy to finally be able to use it after all those hours of practicing it in front of the mirror.

Alice waited expectantly as the woman looked her over, arms crossed in front of her bosom. If her dress hadn’t been so modern and yellow, Alice could almost imagine herself being transported back in time, back into kindergarten among the nuns. The only thing the woman lacked was a rosary going through her fingers, lips mumbling an Our Father.

Alice tilted her head slightly to the right, preparing herself for the worst. Although after all those month, she had forgotten what it was exactly. “The worst that could happen.” It seemed such an ominous thing to say, but what would they really do to her? With each book she had taken, the next book seemed easier. Until she had forgotten what the fuss was really about. It were only badly indexed, badly managed books collecting dust in this building that dared called itself a library. With employees hell-bent on catching book thieves, instead of offering people the guidance they longed to find a book they could love and cherish. It was a disgrace, and she was glad she was finally getting into a position to change that.

Alice still felt the eyes of the woman on her. Perhaps this time she would finally be caught. She would lose three books. She knew the classics would be more difficult to get, it was easier for people to notice it when they’d be gone. But then again, she had to have them, these last specimens to complete her collection. She would be sad to not be able to have Flatland, but those other two books were much overrated anyway. Perhaps she should give up Werther, talke the fall for the sorrow-full book, but save the others. Her future customers would be disappointed, for sure, but she at least would have an interesting story to tell when they’d inform about Goethe. And in the end, they’d get over it. She’d probably just tell them to borrow Pride and Prejudice instead. And they would listen to her for once. Because she would be the head librarian. She had a special connection to all of the books available, and everyone would come to her for advice. Unlike this yellow monster who was just trying to take away these books from her.

“My colleagues told me you are one of our most loyal visitors. I just wanted to let you know that the reading room is closed tomorrow, because of Independence Day.”

Alice momentarily forgot to keep her innocent face on her, that’s how shocked she was. She was completely prepared, she even had a whole speech ready, about how she would never do it again, about why she wanted to get these books for her nephew who was coming over for a few nights and she wanted to surprise him. But it seemed like she had practised her speech for nothing. All those hours in front of the mirror, the hours of editing and proofreading her speech, practising her gestures of sorrow and regret. All for nothing!

With her eyebrows raised and a growing grimace showing a bit of her teeth, Alice looked far from innocent. But it didn’t matter really. The woman with the yellow dress had already turned around to give the sad news to the next innocent victim that walked past her desk.

Alice regrouped herself, quickly touching the books she had carefully hidden under her coat to make sure they were all still there. She guessed she’d have to go ahead as planned. She would not be caught after all. Her collection would finally be complete.

As she walked through the rotating doors and she felt the sharp cold seeping through her coat, Alice turned around once more. She would never come back here. It had taken her over eight months of hard work. But now all the books she wanted were safely stored at her house. No matter what policy changes some government official would decide to implement, she’d always be able to read, to access the worlds she loved so much, and to share those worlds with the people who would love them as well.

The building looked just as grey as it ever did. The windows filled with images of books, images of children reading books. But then she saw it. Normally there would be some notices about upcoming events. But in its stead there was a piece of paper with an announcement. In big letters it read:

“Due to Arrival of New Stock:
All Books Free on Independence Day.”

Alice closed her eyes. She thought of all the stress, all the sneaking she had gone through. All for nothing. Everybody would get books for free tomorrow. And after that, the library would be full of new books, with more books than she could ever put in her own house. She had robbed them all, but nobody would care. And above all, nobody would be interested in her library.

As she opened her eyes again, a peace came over Alice. Not all was lost. All of a sudden she realised it wasn’t a big problem. She would simply have to continue. It would take her many more months of hard work. But she had time. She would rent more space to hold all the new books. She would be able to have her own repository, her own storage unit filled with books in case one of the original books would get damaged or lost. It was a bit of set-back, she thought she would have been finished today. But this was actually better. It would simply mean she would have more copies of each book. And there was no harm in that, was there? No harm at all.

With much thanks to the lovely Charu (@diebitch), who has been so kind to exchange prompts each Thursday for the past couple of weeks, which has been an absolute treat and resulted in many stories being written already, most still being edited and perhaps good enough to send out to some publisher one day. Do check out this ever-inspiring and exultant fellow-writer soulcandy.

Read more short stories by @nobyeni at her website.
Support her philosophical fiction on Patreon or through Steady.

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