Sherman could walk between the aisles of the Southview County Library for hours. He loved it so much that twenty years ago he started working there and he hadn’t looked back.
It wasn’t any one thing that he loved. He had heard countless librarians talk on and on about the smell of old books and how much they loved to take a random book from a shelf, open it up, and just breathe in its history. Sherman understood what they were talking about, but he didn’t worship that concept as so many others seemed to.
What Sherman saw was a world in the books, that every day his journey would bring him into foreign lands, sometimes immigrating newcomers to make their new home amongst the shelves or taking oldtimers out after their bindings were beyond repair. Both incoming and outgoing had its own little ceremony that Sherman would perform. For someone coming in to the neighborhood, after finding the place the book would sit, he would push it in halfway, so that it sat halfway off the shelf and run his hand over the spine, “Welcome to your new home. Hope you like it.” and with that, he would push it into place.
For the books that were on their way out, he would delicately take them from their place on the shelf, the same way a child might pick a flower. “Time for a new home, my old friend.” He would say quietly, as not to disturb it, placing it gingerly on his cart. He would then bring the book to the box where all the veterans went and were eventually sold at the yearly ‘Dollar A Book’ sale.
These were just two of a litany of rituals Sherman had during his days walking through the aisles. A couple of the other librarians had seen him whisper to a book here and there, and just assumed he talked to himself. He did his best to keep his little world beyond the to himself in front of his coworkers. The only times he was open about his games was when he was walking through the children’s section, and that was because kids seemed to get a kick out of him saying hello to the Berensteins or Beezus & Ramona.
Another of the little things Sherman would look out for was patterns, of which there were a surprising number. Repeating colors in certain sections or on certain rows were like small neighborhoods. A whole lot of black bound books with bright bold white letters hung around in the horror section while every few books in History was a bright red. Before looking at the cover or the title, just simply the color, Sherman would try and guess which neighborhood any newcomer would be moving into.
It was a simple and silly life, but Sherman liked it.
It wasn’t until his last day working for the library that he was faced with the understanding of how much it really meant to him. The retirement wasn’t being thrust upon him, and other than the occasional bad day where he just couldn’t seem to keep his head in his work, he was as sharp as ever. His daughter though had gotten him an apartment at a place called Shepards Fields. He liked the apartment, but hated the name.
The place was for older men and women who could still live without much help, but had all the amenities and then some. Every afternoon there were games and small parties. Every night there was a group dinner you could go to or not, and if you chose to not, they would just bring your dinner to you. Sherman had more than one friend that lived there, and had even been part of the reason that once a week a bus brought the Shepard’s sheep to the library so they could get books or books on tape.
The name though… it made him feel like livestock. Like he was just being lead from one place to another until the time where he was ready to be put down.
Sherman didn’t want to go, but he couldn’t deny that the day after day of walking, even through his favorite neighborhoods, tired him out a lot more now than it ever had before.
On his final day, he made a promise to himself that he would get through every row once so that he could say goodbye to all of his friends. He would introduce the last of the newcomers to town, and then the other librarians would each in turn give him a hug, rub his spine, and say “Time for a new home, old friend.”
By lunch, he hadn’t gotten anywhere near as far as he wanted to. By his vague estimation he should have been all the way through fiction and somewhere in self-help by the time his alarm beeped at noon. He was still somewhere in Fiction at FIC PAO. He wanted to blame the amount of books he had handled, but looking down at his near empty cart, he knew better.
Leaving his cart parked to the side of the neighborhood, he looked up, ‘Okay kids, goin to have myself a bite. You all keep it down, ok?” and smiled at the perfect and expected silence all of the neighborhood returned back with.
Something was wrong though. There was an empty shelf.
The Southview County library didn’t have empty shelves in the middle of aisles. They would always keep room at the bottom, or at worst, in the first and last bookcase, but never in the middle, and never at eye level. It threw Sherman off in a way that almost gave him vertigo. ‘Did someone take all of these?’ he wondered. It was possible, he guessed, but in his years in the stacks he had never seen anything like it.
With lunch near forgotten, he looked at the last book before the gap, FIC PAQ, and then after the gap, FIC PAR.
Writing the titles of both books down on the little pad he kept at his cart, he walked over to one of the computers that was positioned at the end of every other aisle.
A quick search told him that there weren’t any books that were supposed to go in between, which lead him to the idea that perhaps someone had started condensing the shelves and disappeared. It was that sort of laziness that had really bothered him about a lot of his coworkers. Not all of them, but a few were quite content to only do half the job, and leave it to the competant ones to make it right.
Sherman sighed. If he didn’t fix the gap, it would bother him all day and perhaps the next. If he did fix it, than he would be lucky to finsh all of fiction before he left.
“You’ll be back next week to say good-bye…” He tried to use that to console himself, but it didn’t really do the job.
“Sherman, you have spent the last twenty years making every aisle perfect. It’s your last day and there is no reason you should stop until you have to go.”
His pep talk had worked. His other friends would have to wait.
With a bit more spring in his step, feeling like he had a mission to accomplish that, for whatever reason, felt more important on his last day than it might have ever before, he headed to the empty aisle.
To fill in this empty shelf, he would have to bring every book from the shelf below it up, and then the shelf below that, and below that. He worried about the books on the very bottom, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. He disliked having to sit on the floor, as it always took him a little too long to get back up, but by then he would probably have gotten a chair to work in the middle of the aisle. (A little thing they let him do that nobody else could).
“Ok boys, I don’t know why you aren’t home, but its time to move you guys back to where you are supposed to be.”
Sherman took books in groups of two or three and started repopulating the shelf, and after five minutes, everything on that shelf was where it was supposed to be. He pulled out his hankie and wiped the slight sweat off his brow and nodded. “There you go, don’t know how you got where you were, but isn’t it nice to be back home?”
He looked down at his watch and the grumble of his stomach told him that he had completely forgotten lunch and he should probably handle that. He walked to the end of the aisle, ready to head off to the small kitchen nook. “Now, you all settle in, I’ll be back in…”
When Sherman looked over his shoulder to tell his friends he would be right back, the entire shelf was empty again.
“…boys?” he asked, with a serious note of concern in his voice.
At first, Sherman thought perhaps he had just miscounted and he was looking at the shelf below the one he fixed, but it simply wasn’t the case. The last book before the gap was FIC PAQ yet again.
“Oh, Sherman… maybe it is good that this is your last day.” He was half kidding, but another part of him worried just a little that maybe this had happened before. Hell, the empty gap in the shelf might be his fault, and it was his old-man-dimensia that stopped him from realizing it.
Another grumble from his stomach insisted that he go take a break, but this time he outright ignored it. Five more minutes wouldn’t be the end of him, and he wouldn’t feel so weird about what he was leaving behind, so again he started in twos and threes putting the books back on the shelf and just as before, five minutes later, it was done.. again.
“Now,” He grinned at the full shelf of books, “you all stay precisely where you were told to.” He had no clue what weird situation lead him to have to fill the same shelf twice, but it was done now.
Again he got to the end of the aisle, and again he looked over his shoulder to say good-bye to the books he had just moved.
And again his work had been undone.
He blinked, staring at the empty row that he had now filled twice. Looking at the books he had just moved, he could see little groups of books he had grabbed both times. He knew where he had put them. He knew which books he had taken singularly because they were either too big, or too small to be taken with a partner. He knew these things, yet all of his work had been undone in seconds.
“..Boys?” Again, he asked instead of spoke. The question at the end now was a lot more concerned than it had been before. It could almost be qualilfied as fear. ‘…There a reason you don’t all want to go home?”
“..we are home.”
Sherman jumped back, and almost fell to the ground, but ended up with his back pressed against the other side of the aisle. “..but..”
“..we’ve made a home for you too..”
Sherman licked his lips, which were all of a sudden quite dry, and took a step towards the empty row, and the voice.
“Miss Marro? Miss Henrikson?” Sherman asked the aisle, even though the voice was very distinctly male. Still, the idea that this was some sort of last day prank had come to him, even though it would have been the strangest sort of thing he had ever seen the librarians do to someone on their way out.
“..Sherman, you have cared for us more than any others..”
He peered around the end of the row, but nobody was within earshot of where he stood. The closest was a woman poking through the newspapers.
“..we know you are going, and we wished to offer you this..”
The hunger that lay dormant in Sherman’s stomach had filled by a sphere of ice that was starting to radiate fear.
“..you have so many stories and years.. so many adventures, and with us there would be so many more..”
Realizing he was gripping the shelf behind him, he loosened up his fingers and rubbed the ache from his hand. “W-w-why me?” He asked.
“..you are as much a part of this place as we are..”
He did feel like that, and even now before he had even left this place, he was looking forward to the idea of coming back after he had settled into the Shepards Field. “What if I say no?”
“..then you say no, and you go..”
Sherman’s fears that this was the onset of one of those horrible diseases people his age began to get was begining to create as much of that fear in his stomach as the fact that the shelves of the library were talking to him. He had watched too many people he cared about lose their mind and common sense, and if this was the first clue it was happening to him, he would have to make some important decisions very quickly.
Sherman laughed a little too loudly. “So? So I’m left with the fact that I’ve gone completely bonkers, or I’ve been working in a library with a soul for the last two decades. So, Mister Library, where I may not be a good Christian man, I do have faith in my own way. A talking library seems to be a bit counter to that, wouldn’t you think?”
‘..not at all..”
“And now why is that?”
Beyond the shelves, the whole of the library felt like the air shifted, and if he didn’t know better, Sherman would have thought it had sighed.
‘..because one day, a few years ago, a little girl was crying in a children’s book aisle, and you came across her. you asked her why she was crying, and she said that she had just found out that her parents were getting a divorce. You spoke with her for quite a long time, even knowing that there was likely someone wandering around looking for her, perhaps even fearful of what had happened to her. You listened. You responded. And when she asked how you knew what you knew about everything she had asked, you told her that you had read and read and being here in the library you had absorbed these books into yourself. You weren’t just a man, you were part library… and you were right. And you weren’t the only one.. We are the sum of our readers, and every book read and every moment spent is one that has filled us with life… and now, we wish to ask you to join us completely and share in our joy..’
Sherman felt tears well up in his eyes. The idea was so perfectly fantastic and idealistic, but he had so many other things in his life to consider. What about his daughter? What about his friends? He didn’t want to hurt them or for them to live in fear of what had happened to him.
He thought back to his years. The money he had spent on her college. His wife, long since gone, and how they spent so many days sitting arm in arm, reading together. It was half of the reason he had taken his job at the library. To be close to that memory above them all.
Lindsy sat in the main reading library. It was her last stop before heading home. After a month of looking for her father, she had finally decided it was time to get back to her life, but not before sitting in the place she had shared a lunch with him so many times and reflecting. She promised she would come back on his birthday, and maybe her parents’ anniversary, but for the most part she needed to stop wondering what happened and accepted he was gone.
The sounds, however slight, that surrounded the library seemed to fade while she sat just taking in the place the way her father had for so long. Sitting here, she felt like he was there with her.