Where are you, Papa? Jaiden wondered when a car drove past. He looked up hoping to see him, but it was someone else. When the car disappeared around the corner, he turned his attention back to the game of Minecraft he played on his mini-tablet.
“What do you suppose is keeping him?” Jaiden asked Anjali without looking up from his game.
“I don’t know. Maybe one of his students needed to speak with him before he left.” Anjali shrugged. She exchanged text messages with her best friend, Gianna, and seemed unaware of the gathering clouds and the time that passed while they waited. Anjali was thirteen, tall for her age with long brown hair and the same big brown eyes and dimples as her brother. She chuckled at the text message she received from Gianna. Anjali shifted in her seat on the front patio of Mothers home waiting for Papa.
“What time is it?” Jaiden glanced at Anjali’s smartphone.
“Umm, four thirty.” Anjali pushed her purple glasses up on her nose.
“Papa hasn’t returned your text message?”
“Nope.” Anjali shook her head.
Mother wasn’t home either. A head nurse at the local hospital, she always worked late on days Jaiden and Anjali went to Papa’s house for visitation. Their bus stop was across the street, and Papa usually waited in his car before their bus arrived. He always had a book in hand and he was never late.
“It’s getting dark,” Jaiden said.
Anjali looked at the sky. Dark clouds had gathered overhead. She nodded in agreement.
“It’s almost sunset. Do you think we should go to the library?” Jaiden followed her gaze.
Anjali swiped at the screen of her smartphone to confirm the projected time for sunset. “Yeah. It says here sunset will be at four forty-three, which gives us less than fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll race you.” Jaiden flashed his mischievous smile.
Despite their differences, Jaiden and Anjali had one thing in common: they competed against each other at everything. Who could tie their shoes faster? Who could put their seat belt on first? Who had a higher score on the games they played? And when they couldn’t agree on something, they played rock-paper-scissors to settle the matter. When neither was satisfied with the outcome, they did a best two out of three, or best three out of five, until Papa stepped in and made the decision.
Today, however, Papa was nowhere to be found.
Anjali thought about Jaiden’s challenge briefly. Then she leapt to her feet and raced to the library.
“Hey, cheater!” Jaiden chased after her.
They sprinted the two blocks to the library, which was between Papa’s home and mother’s house. Papa had lived in a different house ever since the divorce, but Jaiden and Anjali were too small to remember when Papa had moved away. It was a nice house a few blocks away from Mother’s home where Jaiden and Anjali visited Papa every Tuesday, for Story Time at the library, and every weekend. When they arrived at the library the parking lot was empty. Gold and brown leaves blew across the blacktop and the air felt colder than it had a few minutes ago.
“Wait,” Anjali said.
Jaiden came up a few steps behind her. “That didn’t count. You cheated.”
Anjali smiled. She lifted her smartphone out of her pocket, and sent Papa another text message to make sure he wasn’t home, or at Mother’s house.
There was still no reply.
“Where is everyone?” Jaiden looked around. “The library looks closed.”
“The library never closes this early on a Tuesday, dork.” She approached the door and pointed at the hours printed on the glass. “See. It says, 9:00 p.m.”
The air felt warmer inside, but most of the lights were off. No one was at the counter, and the library appeared to be closed. The faint glow of the computer screens was creepy in the darkness.
“Maybe we should wait outside.” Jaiden looked around nervously.
“You’re such a chicken,” Anjali teased.
Despite being a girly-girl, nothing really scared her. Though Jaiden often teased her about hanging out with her friends to talk about boys or read books, she preferred ghost stories at bedtime and did not fear the dark. She walked through the long shadowed corridor that led to the heart of the library.
“I’m not afraid.” Jaiden followed close behind. “I’m just saying, maybe the library closed early for an emergency and we shouldn’t be in here.”
“It’s Tuesday,” Anjali said over her shoulder. “If Papa’s running late, then he’ll come here when he’s done. Stop trying to get out of Story Time Tuesdays.”
Anjali knew her eleven-year-old brother better than anyone. He was the last kid you’d expect to find reading a book or studying because he’d rather play outside with his friends. Like most boys his age, when he wasn’t outside, he played video games on his Nintendo 3DS, or Minecraft on a tablet. Just as he did on this day, when Papa didn’t arrive to pick them up for visitation.
The corridor led to the heart of the library, and they emerged in the low lighting of the study tables and computer center.
“Maybe they cancelled Story Time Tuesday.” Jaiden whispered.
“Would you quit being such a baby?” Anjali peered through the darkness.
“I’m just saying,” Jaiden whispered again.
Anjali held up a hand and shushed him. “I think I see someone.”
A long shadow moved against the far wall. A man spoke in a low voice, but they could not discern his words.
Jaiden tugged on the strap of Anjali’s backpack.
“Seriously, Jay?” She turned to him.
“I’m just saying.” Jaiden whispered and shrugged.
Anjali rolled her eyes. When she turned back to the silhouette, it had vanished. Okay, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
Jaiden glanced over his shoulder. He half expected something to jump out at them from the shadows. Silence hung in the air.
“This place is quieter than a graveyard,” Anjali muttered.
“Okay, that is so not what I wanted to hear right now.” Jaiden shook his head.
They stepped deeper into the shadows. The bookshelves loomed over them like guards in a haunted castle. The low lighting barely revealed anything after the sun had set, and the darkness of night stared at them through the windows.
When Anjali turned to suggest they leave, the storyteller, Mr. Devan Veda, emerged from behind a bookshelf and leaned against a cane. “I wondered when you were going to arrive.” His smile vanished when he saw they were alone. “Where’s your father?”
“We don’t know.” Anjali shrugged.
“Why are you all alone in the dark?” Jaiden asked.
“Who says I’m alone?” Mr. Devan Veda raised his arms in a sweeping motion. “I have my friends with me.”
“I’m sorry. Your what?” Jaiden flinched at Mr. Devan Veda’s inference that they were not alone.
“My friends,” Mr. Devan Veda said flatly. “They hide in the books. People make them nervous.”
“Dude, you’re weird,” Jaiden said.
Anjali slapped Jaiden on the arm for being rude.
Mr. Devan Veda was a kind old man with long white hair and a thick white beard that fell to the center of his chest. He wore a kurta, a traditional item of clothing from his native India that fell like a robe to just below his knees. Beneath his kurta he wore Southeast Asian pajama-style pants that wrapped tight around his ankles with a pair of matching slippers. His dark eyes were keen and gentle. Above his long wide nose a red mark dotted the center of his forehead.
Jaiden once asked Mr. Devan Veda about it, and the librarian explained that the red bindi—meaning a drop or a dot—was a symbol from Vedic times in Indian mythology.
“The red represents honor and love, placed on the forehead to symbolize wisdom and intellect.”
Mr. Devan Veda didn’t appear to realize that children poked fun at his strange clothes and foreign customs. It was either that or he simply didn’t care because he was nice to all children and enjoyed reading to them every Tuesday evening. When he wasn’t reading to the children, the storyteller kept busy replacing the books on the shelves. He walked up and down the aisles, muttering to himself while he opened the books and turned the pages.
Once, after story time, Jaiden overheard Mr. Devan Veda from the next aisle. He sounded as if he was talking to the books. Jaiden peered between books on the shelves and saw him holding a book open. Chuckling alone before patting the cover and returning the book to its place on the shelf.
“Papa, he’s weird,” Jaiden whispered.
“He’s not weird,” Papa had said, “he’s a librarian. He’s a guardian of the gates that lead into another realm, a keeper of the keys into a different dimension, for it is said that books are the keys that unlock those gates. You will understand when you use your imagination.”
“Okay, Papa. I take that back. You’re weird.” Jaiden rolled his eyes.
A sixth grader, Jaiden was a smart boy, but he did not believe in magic. He was a skinny kid with short brown hair and big brown eyes with two large dimples when he smiled that people often said he got from his dad. His quirky sense of humor, and his penchant for talking in class, often got him into trouble. Yet, Jaiden Medina carried on with his normal life, in a normal world, where nothing unbelievable ever happened, because magic did not exist.
Or did it?
Everything changed for Jaiden on this curious day when Papa never arrived to pick them up from the bus stop for visitation.
Mr. Devan Veda studied Jaiden momentarily before he pursed his lips and turned away. He hobbled and leaned on his cane as he muttered to himself. “Just like his father.”
It was then that Anjali realized she had never seen Mr. Devan Veda walk before. In all the years they had come to the library for Story Time Tuesday, he was seated on a large cushion when they arrived. Afterward, she retrieved the book she wanted to read, used the self-checkout at the front counter, and waited outside with her friends until Papa and Jaiden found their reading selections. Jaiden had always taken the longest to find a book because he never actually wanted to read one.
“Wait. What do you mean, just like his father?” Anjali started after Mr. Devan Veda.
Not to be left alone in the darkness, Jaiden followed.
“That’s not important right now.” Mr. Devan Veda waved off her question. “What matters is that we find your father. Quickly!”
Anjali looked over her shoulder at Jaiden.
“Why are all the lights off?” Jaiden said.
“There was a power outage. Everyone went home.” Mr. Devan Veda turned the corner and quickened his hobbled step. “Today. Today. What’s the date?”
“Umm, November third,” Anjali said.
“November third,” Mr. Veda repeated. He stopped and stared ahead. His fingers brushed over his long white beard. “It’s the day after—”
He leaned against his cane, turned back and hobbled in the opposite direction.
“The day after what?” Anjali said.
Jaiden followed as he quickened his step and peered down each aisle they passed. Only the emergency lighting provided visibility between the bookshelves.
“It’s the day after the Day of the Dead.” Mr. Devan Veda turned another corner.
“The day of the—” Anjali mused. “But that’s a three-day celebration.”
“Yes, three days, but one opportunity.” Mr. Devan Veda stopped halfway down the long aisle. He glanced up at the top shelf and sighed. He turned and pointed to a stepladder that sat at the far end of the aisle. He snapped his fingers and asked Jaiden to retrieve it.
“What do you mean, ‘three days, but one opportunity?’” Anjali followed his anxious gaze.
“As I’m sure you know; Day of the Dead festivities coincide with Allhallowtide.” Mr. Devan Veda motioned for Jaiden to place the stepladder down.
“Yeah, the three-day celebration of All Hallows Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls Day.” Anjali shrugged. “More commonly known as Halloween.”
Mr. Devan Veda winced as he climbed onto the stepladder. He muttered to himself as he skimmed over the spines of the books on the top shelf. “Yes, well, what you probably don’t know is that it is only one of two times throughout the year people believe in magic. Three if you count Easter.”
Jaiden and Anjali looked at each other curiously.
“I told you he was weird.” Jaiden whispered and rolled his eyes.
“I’m not sure I understand.” Anjali turned back to Mr. Devan Veda clutched a book as he descended from the stepladder.
If you knew Mr. Devan Veda as well as anyone could truly know the storyteller, then you’d know he had more tales than a thousand dragons and ten thousand snakes. He shared fables of adventure and legend with such enthusiasm and detail that you could swear he had witnessed the events in his lifetime. Some said he was as old as the moon and probably saw the first sunrise.
He led Anjali and Jaiden back down the aisle. He hobbled as he opened the book and skimmed through the pages. He placed the open book on a table. He pointed to a picture on the page that depicted darkness, ghosts, demons, and souls.
“Many legends hold that on October thirty-first, when the days of the world grow colder and nightfall comes quickly, the collector of souls comes for the living and the dead.”
“Like Samhain in the Gaelic tradition,” Anjali said.
“Precisely!” Mr. Veda snapped his fingers. “It is the liminal time when spirits can more easily cross over into our realm.”
“Okay, that’s not funny.” Jaiden peered over his shoulder.
“It’s the reason we wear costumes for Halloween, dork.” Anjali rolled her eyes. “Don’t you pay attention when Papa reads to us?”
“Your father, he has been preparing you for this day, for a long time.” Mr. Veda interrupted.
Jaiden and Anjali turned to the storyteller and looked at him curiously.
Preparing us? Anjali met her brother’s gaze.
They recalled that on days when they stayed with Papa, he had insisted they read his mythology books because, “You never know when you’re going to need it.”
Afterwards, when it was playtime, he wrestled with them and taught them self-defense. A few summers ago he even made swords using Styrofoam, duct tape, and silver-lined glossy cardboard that shone like a rainbow in the sun.
“You must never hesitate.” He would slash and side step. “Stay alert, stay alive!”
Even during their play battles he spoke of the deeds of legendary warriors: Achilles, Alexander the Great, and King Leonidas. “The greatest warriors fought for glory and for the gods.”
Papa was a college professor who taught ancient history, which Jaiden and Anjali thought was a boring subject. That didn’t stop him, however, from talking their ears off about lost civilizations and mythical kings.
Papa took them to the library where they met Mr. Devan Veda read tales of folklore and mythology at sunset.
“A world without stories is like a night without stars,” Mr. Devan Veda had once mused.
Jaiden and Anjali turned their attention back to the storyteller.
“People wear costumes for these traditions because deep down they allow themselves to believe in the magic of being someone else. Even if only for the night, they enjoy frolicking in the tiny adventure of going door-to-door for tricks and treats. All while walking among the living and the dead.”
“Wait. You mean to tell me that there’s ghosts out there too?” Jaiden said.
“Of course!” Mr. Veda exclaimed.
“Yeah right, just like your friends who hide in the books, huh?” Jaiden shook his head. “I’m outta here.” He lifted his backpack off the table and threw it over his shoulder. Anjali chased after him and stopped him halfway down the dark corridor.
“Why are you being so rude?”
“I’m not being rude. The guy’s nuts!”
“He’s not nuts. He just has an active imagination.”
“No, Anjali, he’s nuts. The guy thinks people hide in books for crying out loud.”
“Sometimes you like to pretend that you’re Super Mario, or Bowser, or a Power Ranger, don’t you? Sometimes you like to pretend that you’re Michelangelo and your friends are the other Ninja Turtles. Does that make you crazy?”
“Okay, but that’s make-believe. We don’t actually believe we are those characters. We just pretend.”
“To pretend is to make use of your imagination.” Mr. Devan Veda approached. “When you use your imagination, you cross over into the other realm. The realm that remains hidden from those who don’t believe in magic. But to make-believe, to truly make yourself believe that you are those heroes is to use the magic of your imagination.”
Mr. Devan Veda stopped before them. He leaned on a cane as he smiled.
“I’m sorry I—” Jaiden began to say.
“There’s no need for apologies. Believe me, I have been called worse.” Mr. Veda rummaged through his pockets and brandished a small timepiece. “Oh my!”
“What?” Anjali asked.
“Time is of the essence. We must hurry.” Mr. Devan Veda turned and led them back into the library.
“Hurry for what? I don’t understand.” Anjali followed.
Jaiden gazed through the darkened windows. The wind picked up. Trees waved beneath the street lamps, and lightning flashed across the sky. Where are you, Papa?
He turned and chased after his sister and the storyteller.
“Mythical kings lived centuries ago. Their deeds were honorable and courageous. Their hearts were patient and loving. Their prowess on the battlefield was legendary in a time when the gods roamed the earth.” Mr. Devan Veda said.
“But you’re talking about stories,” Jaiden interrupted.
“Yes. Stories. Story. History. They all mean a narrative of past events.” Mr. Devan Veda leaned on his cane with each step. “All of these things happened in a time when people believed that anything was possible. There were no books or movies to take them on an adventure. They had to create the adventure by living the adventure!”
“So you’re saying the legends Papa read to us actually happened?” Anjali asked.
“Yes!” Mr. Devan Veda said over his shoulder. He turned down an aisle and scanned the spines of books. When he found a particular book he tapped on the spine before he carefully shifted each book partially out of place on the shelf.
Anjali proceeded after the librarian. Jaiden stopped to read the title of the first book before he followed, The Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods, and Goddesses.
“The stories reach to us across millennia because of the bards and storytellers who relayed each legend when they traveled around the world. Over time the stories changed a little, but the gist of each tale remained the same.” Mr. Devan Veda turned down another aisle and continued to tap on the spines of books before he shifted their position on the shelves.
Jaiden continued to read the title of each book as they went along.
“For centuries the oral traditions allowed us to remember the deeds of heroes. But when people began to forget the legends and wondered if they were just tales meant to scare us, that’s when legend became myth.”
“Like with the Iliad,” Anjali said.
“Precisely!” Mr. Devan Veda snapped his fingers and led them down another aisle.
“I remember.” Jaiden followed. “Papa told us about the ruins of Troy discovered after two thousand years.”
Mr. Veda stopped at the end of the fourth aisle. His gaze shifted from Anjali to Jaiden before he spoke again. “The tales are true. The deeds, the adventures, and the heroes who lived them are all true.”
They looked at him, taken aback.
“The monsters are real, too.” He continued in a low voice. “The ghosts, the goblins, the dragons, and the creatures who move among the shadows.”
Jaiden and Anjali studied the wild look in Mr. Devan Veda’s eyes.
His gaze shifted. “Come. We must hurry.”
He hobbled on his cane. Aisle after aisle, he tapped a spine and shifted a book.
“What are you doing? And what does this have to do with our father?” Anjali asked.
“More than two thousand and five hundred years ago an Assyrian king named King Ashurbanipal, built the first great library of the world. It contained more than twenty thousand clay tablets of stories from ancient times, gathered from all corners of the known world.” Mr. Veda climbed another stepladder. “Hence the term, ‘written in stone.’”
He shifted another book and stepped down.
“To preserve the legends, King Ashurbanipal established the Order of the Scribes, a secret organization of warriors charged with protecting the library.”
“Why?” Jaiden wondered.
“Books possess magic. The power of the imagination must never be underestimated.” Mr. Devan Veda had a wild look in his eyes.
“What happened to the Order?” Anjali stepped aside to let him pass.
“They were outnumbered and forced to flee when the Babylonians invaded. In those times, it was hard to find a warrior who knew how to read. After the invasion, the Order went into hiding and secretly recruited boys and young men whom they taught how to read and write and fight.”
Mr. Devan Veda arrived at the last aisle.
“At any rate, the Order grew and carried on the tradition of protecting stories and the people who write them. They find the dark entities that seek to distract writers from writing their stories. They can see what others cannot. One warrior from the Order of the Scribes is assigned to protect each library, no matter how large or small. And when a protector goes missing, it means the enemy is near.”
“You mean Papa is—” Jaiden began to say.
“A protector, yes, but there’s no time for that now.” Mr. Veda cut him off. “What you need to understand is that books and stories give people hope. They allow us to use our imagination and conjure the magic necessary to ward off evil and despair.”
Before Mr. Devan Veda tapped and shifted the final book, he turned to Jaiden and Anjali.
“If the enemy has taken your father, then chances are he has taken others as well. If the libraries and writers are left unprotected, then we are doomed.” Mr. Devan Veda turned, tapped on the spine of a book before he moved it out of place. “You have until sunrise to find the mythical kings and convince them to help you.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Anjali shouted when a howling wind and circle of fire surrounded them. The light and heat from the fire grew intense, but nothing burned.
“Remember everything your father has taught you.” Mr. Devan Veda shielded his eyes. “And remember to use your imagination!”