So I wake up, mouth dry, head pounding, and some idiot is whistling a happy tune that makes me want to smack him one across the mouth. I pull my head up, and something stuck to my face pulls away with a ripping sound. I hope I didn’t leave skin on it.
A sweet familiar scent surrounds me. Oddly comforting. Like nostalgia. When I’m hungover, it’s easy to set my stomach off, but this scent calms me more than anything. My eyes are blurry, and it takes a moment or two of blinking to realize where I am.
The whistling continues to drill a hole in my head as I take it in. I’m sitting at a long wooden table which brings to mind grade school. Stacks of books surrounding me on all sides. No windows are visible. I squint down at the book I’d used as my pillow. No surprise there. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of my favorites. Back in the day, it was the book that made me want to be a writer.
The whistling stops. A short-lived blessing interrupted by a nasally voice saying, “Finally, you’re awake.”
He stands at the other end of the table, small hands resting on the handle of a cart full of books. If my head wasn’t about to split open I would laugh, but it is, so I don’t. He’s short, standing about five feet tall. If he weighs a hundred pounds, I’ll bang my hungover head into the table. He has a rare way of looking old with smooth skin, sharp features, and silver hair. What is laughable, though, is his tuxedo.
He peers over his small, round spectacles and says, “Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
He shakes his head and clicks his tongue. He pushes his cart around the table, saying something like, “Oh dear, one of those.” I have no idea what this could mean so I ignore it.
When he reaches me, he extends his hand. "I'm Efraim Burns." His hand is too soft and small in my own. He peers over his spectacles again, his eyes the color of the barrel of an inkwell.
“Pleasure to meet you. Now, if you’ll follow me we can get started.”
“Get started with what?” I ask. There’s no time to introduce myself because he’s already off, pushing his cart toward the stacks behind me. Forcing myself out of my chair, I try not to upset the delicate balance between standing and not throwing up. There’s a heaviness about me like after swimming and I expect to be dizzy, nauseous, but I’m not. So far, the only effect my hangover seems to have on me is the pain. Pain I can deal with.
I follow the book pusher, taking a gamble that moving so fast won’t bring on more of the hangover. The stacks are a maze, but I find my way through following the sound of the squeaking wheel of his cart. It’s the only other sound besides my footfalls. When I find him again, he is at the reception desk. The cart is pushed to the side, and he is behind the desk searching for something. He gives a look which all but screams “a-ha” and pulls up a ring of keys. Glancing up at me, he approaches the cart, selects a book from the stack, and searches for more.
“Get started with what?” I ask again when I catch up with him.
Mr. Burns looks up at me, his expression that of someone dealing with a simple-minded child, but he smiles and says, “I’m sorry you weren’t told more about what’s going on. Everything will be clear in just a moment …” He trails off as he continues searching the stack of books on the cart. “… I just need to find …” And then he does say it. “Aha.”
He pulls another book off the cart and tucks it under his arm. He nods at me as he makes his way around the cart and heads back into the stacks.
“Hey,” I say, taking one step toward him. “Mr. Burns? Can you just tell me where the exit is?”
“Right this way, please,” he says, and it hits me what he reminds me of. Batman’s valet, Alfred. One of my all time favorite characters. The quiet hero in the background. I had thought about writing a book about Alfred back when I still thought about writing books. This guy isn’t British, but he seems like he should be. I follow him into the stacks again.
I haven’t seen a window since I woke up here, but natural light fills the room. A glance at the ceiling reveals no fluorescents, but light is coming from somewhere.
We arrive at a large wooden door with a brass knob which gleams as if polished only moments before. He pulls the ring of keys from his pocket, flips it around one-handed until he has the right key, which he inserts into the lock. Before he can turn the knob though, I say, “This doesn’t look like the exit, guy.”
He smiles a thin smile, nods, and opens the door.
When Mr. Burns flips on the light, it shocks me into silence. I expected a storage closet, maybe a room off to the side dedicated to certain kinds of books. What I get is more of what I had left behind. Holding the door open, I look back at the room before and the stacks lined with books I had just left. The rooms are nearly identical. Similar size and lighting, stacks and shelves aligned in a manner virtually indistinguishable.
A clatter and a shuffle. Mr. Burns has another cart. He places the books from the previous room on the new cart, there are several there already, then pushes the cart further in. The door slides out of my grasp as I make my way into the new room.
“What is going on here?” I ask, my voice is too high.
Mr. Burns doesn’t answer. He pushes his cart and begins whistling (drilling for pain in my head) again. I glance back at the door I’d come through as if it somehow would get me out of this, then I turn and follow after him.
He entered another aisle, and I run so I don’t lose him in the stacks. Before I enter the aisle, I see the word marking the section. Instead of announcing this is fiction or biography, reference, or newspapers, the large white letters spell out Potential.
I keep moving, adding it to the list of things that don’t make sense. It occurs to me that I haven’t wondered how I got here. When I got here. Why I’m here. I have no memory of coming to this place, and I can’t remember the last thing I remember. How drunk did I get? I don’t remember getting drunk. I feel hungover and concluded that drinking must have gotten me this way.
At the end of the aisle, Mr. Burns is stopped beside a table stacked high with books I don’t recognize, by authors I thought I knew but couldn’t place. Dataclysm by Jon C. Cook, Tinfoil Flowers by the River by Marsha Blevins, Clockwork Cat by Sarah Elizabeth Davis, and Remember Shh … Be A Secret by Rebecca Barray. He sets the books he is carrying alongside them. Again, the authors’ names ring bells for me, but the books are nothing I know. Sleeping Scorpions by Doyle MacBrayne and Bad Life Choices by Julianne Tillis.
I try to figure why these names seem so familiar but can’t grasp it. An icy track runs the length of my spine and there is an itching feeling deep inside my head. A buzz. Like fingers flipping pages, seeking a word, a phrase … a name.
I inspect the shelves surrounding me. There’s another section called Incomplete. On one side I see more books with authors whose names I almost recognize, and the other is lined with names I know; Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, L. Frank Baum, Raymond Chandler, Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman, but the titles below their names are nothing I have ever heard of. Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today, Jacob Grimm’s Lies My Brother Told Me, C.S. Lewis’s The White Rook, Stephen King’s The Clearing.
Lost, looking through the rows of unheard of books, I am at the end of the aisle next to a large black door standing slightly ajar, when he calls my name. I turn to him. He glares at me. For the first time, he’s not smiling.
“Please, join me,” he says.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“The Library,” he answers.
“The Library,” he says, and even though he is at the other end of the aisle, he offers his hand as if he wants me to take it. “Now, please come with me.” He appears nervous, which makes me nervous. I turn back to the black door. It is open a little further now. I step forward, I want to see inside.
“What’s in there?” Almost hypnotized, drawn forward. I have to know, drunk with curiosity.
“Please,” he says.
The door opens further and the light from out here touches nothing in there, but I can see something. A pedestal. A chain.
“Please,” he repeats.
The chain surrounds a book.
“Come with me.”
A title written in black gold lettering. If You Read This Book The World Will End by Neil Gaiman.
He grabs my arm and the black door slams shut.
“Please,” Mr. Burns says, as he pulls me back from what is still pulling me forward. “Come with me.”
I come, but reluctantly.
He takes some books off of the table and walks me to the end of the aisle. There is another door, identical to the door which slammed shut in my face. Same size, same shape, although this one isn’t black but gray. When we approach, I think I see my reflection for a second but realize it is only my shadow. He opens the door and ushers me inside. This room is as dark as the room behind the black door, but it illuminates as we enter with the same unseen light source as the room before.
“Are you going to answer any of my questions?” I begin, but my words are caught in my throat as I take in the enormity of the room we’ve entered. My breath catches in my chest, and I’m dizzy. The aisle of books in front of us runs on until both sides meet. The vanishing point.
I look up, and he has to catch me because I’m falling. The shelves. The books. They go on forever. This isn’t an exaggeration. This is simply what is true. I see it, I know it, I feel it.
“Where?” I begin again. “Where am I?”
“You are here,” Mr. Burns says and starts shelving the books he is carrying. More names on the tip of my tongue, more mystery titles. Midnight’s Son. Perfect Jones. Forsaken. All books by someone named Brent McGuffin. Bolton Black by Owen Kidd. Jack Tyger by Butch Baker. Casey's Vine by Evelyn Buttons.
Then I see my name. My signature in gold stencil. It is on the spine of the book he places on the shelf. My name beside the title The Grove. An idea I’ve had for a book since I was fifteen years old. Among the books he’s still holding, one has a cover with a 45 record on it, the needle about to drop. My name, Greatest Hits. An idea for a fictional account of a band I’d been with in college, my hopes and dreams for Crown Hill. The Man Behind the Bat, my idea for Alfred Pennyworth’s story. Bullet Points, a hitman with a heart of gold. Past Life Blues.
I look up from the books into his eyes, my own leaking tears I barely notice. “How?” I ask. “Why?”
Then, “What are you doing?”
“I’m removing these books from the Potential section.”
“These books are being moved because, and I hate to be crass, they lack potential. These books will never be written.”
My throat is dry, my voice reedy and thin, but I manage one more time. “Why?”
Mr. Burns gives me a look of disappointment or pity or both. “Like you, they’ve run out of time.”