The Last Library, by A.K. Benedict
artwork by Elou Carroll

The tour guide clears her throat. ‘The Museum of Last Things is the ultimate museum. It curates the very end of a line. Within its walls are the Dodo, the cuckoo clock, the number 9. The museum is in itself the last museum – ’

‘And the library,’ Angela says, holding up her hand.

‘Excuse me?’ the guide says. Her smooth forehead twitches.

‘The last library. That’s in there too.’

Maggie, the guide, has long fingernails the colour of greenback beetles. They click as she flicks at the screen. ‘That’s on storey fourteen,’ she says. ‘Old exhibit. It’s not interactive. Due to be shut.’

Angela’s heart punches like a librarian’s stamper. ‘But we’ll get there?’ she asks.

Maggie’s forehead almost creases. ‘We’ll have a quick look if there is time, though we are due at the winery at four and, if we are any later, will miss the complimentary tasting of the last Sancerre.’

Dad lets out a protesting snort and leans over to talk to his boss; his laugh sounds like rain in a tin bucket. He uses it when he’s trying to get something out of a richer man. Mum reaches down and smoothes out Angela’s fringe where it kicks out on the left side. ‘We’ll get you a souvenir,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you play with those kids?’

Three kids sit on the top step, sharing a packet of Gruzzlers. The tall girl sees her watching, waves and beckons her over; the friendship bands hugging her arm jangle.

Angela walks over, biting her lower lip, hands balled deep into the pockets of her jacket. ‘Hello,’ she says, hoping her fringe behaves.

‘Put this in the bin, would you?’ the girl says, shoving the packet up Angela’s sleeve.  

Angela turns away. Their laughter bounces off the museum’s shiny black walls.

*

‘This way,’ Maggie shouts over the heads of the group, marching up the steps and through the dark doors. The entrance hall is as tall as any building Angela has seen. It skies up, supported by columns of different centuries and last kinds, all standing on each other. Angela touches a Greek column that curls at the top like posh women’s hair, on top of which is a red painted metal column from a railway station, then the dirty square column from a hospital waiting room.

‘No touching,’ Maggie shouts, swiping Angela’s hand away. ‘Right. Let’s start with the last.

‘How do you know it’s the last one?’ Angela asks.

‘There are verifiable records and exhaustive studies and – we just do,’ Maggie replies.

‘But there might be another one left, or more. How can you verify if something doesn’t exist? If you haven’t seen it, it might.’

Maggie’s eyes roll so much they must get dizzy. ‘Let’s move on, shall we?’
       
*

Stalking through corridors and vast rooms, Maggie chatters away and pours out facts the way that, at dinner parties, Mum tops up glasses already full of acidic wine. Angela dawdles at the back of the group, feeling like one of the sandbags outside her house, heavying up with floodwater. Every last, lonely thing makes her want to smash the glass and grab the pen, the pacing badger and the handkerchief and let them go.

In one dark room, the last stained window leans against the wall. Even without light behind it the reds and blues and golds burn. She presses her fingertips to a diamond of green glass. It curves slightly outwards, like a tummy. A clammy hand clamps on her shoulder, yanks her away. The potato-faced security man, all tiny eyes and nose hair, pushes her out of the room. ‘No touching,’ he says.

Her mouth opens, closes again.

*

The stairs up to storey fourteen twist round and round. Angela pushes her way up to the front of the group, ducking under armpits and crawling through legs. One man has a blue umbrella where his right leg should be. A War wound, probably: maybe it opens up when it’s going to rain.

Squeezing between two plump ladies, she sees it: the reason she came. The Last Library. Behind two walls of glass and a decompression chamber. Angela’s breath seems stuck. She’s researched it online, in arcane sites and planes, but to see the thick wooden doors with Greek symbols down the frame makes her grin.

‘Come in, we haven’t got long,’ Maggie says, pushing Angela across the stone threshold onto the wooden floors.

The smell gets her first. Lemon polished wood, dusty cologne, and the faintest taint of burning, as if all the brains fired up by the books leave behind their smoke. Shelves reach up for the domed ceiling and shush hangs a canopy over them. And on the shelves, books: cheek to cheek, nestling together; inviting her to lean against the spines and shoulders; each one containing a world and people she can get involved with. Her mind is always full of stories, and now there are more outside her. She is home.

Reaching out to touch one, she sees a boy staring at a book open on a desk as if it were a fire and he were cold.

‘Books,’ Maggie says, looking at her gold watch, ‘were made up of paper, a few of you may remember paper, and paper grew on trees, trees of course being bushes on stilts, if you can imagine that. They were grown by a kind of gardener, called an author.’

A loud cough comes from behind one of the shelves.

Maggie frowns. ‘Anyway – ’ 

‘You can’t tell them that, you stupid woman.’ A tall woman steps out, holding a stack of books. She has pink-rimmed eyes and creased skin with soft white fuzz that makes Angela think of an elderly bespectacled mouse in a twin set, standing on many other mice.

Maggie gasps. Angela smiles.

‘That is the most ridiculous nonsense. If you are going to make stuff up then at least make it magical,’ the tall mouse lady says.

‘Who are you?’ Angela asks.

‘I’m Hedda, the librarian. I used to be Head Librarian but now there are no other librarians I’ve lost my Head.’

‘You’re the Last Librarian!’ Angela says, tugging at her sleeve.

‘No,’ Hedda says, ‘I don’t believe that.’

The glass doors shoosh open. Four men in white overalls come in holding mallets and sacks. One of them winks at Maggie and stands close to her, talking.

She nods and a flash of triumph passes across her face. She looks at Hedda. ‘We’re in luck,’ she says. ‘You are about to see the last library being destroyed. Every last book will be incinerated. It’s a rare event for the museum but they have to make way for other last things. That’s progress.’

A whispering shush comes from shelves around the library. One of the books open on a table slams shut. Another sighs its pages. Apart from Angela, only Hedda and the boy seem to notice. He stares at Angela, eyes wide.

The men sweep books off the shelves into the sacks and swing the mallets at the shelves. Wood cracks and splinters. Angela runs up to one of the men and grabs his elbow. ‘Stop it, stop it.’ He peels her off and pushes her away.

‘Don’t make a scene, Angela,’ Mum says.

More men arrive, with smooth faces and ties. They tick books off shelves and nod to each other.

Hedda shuffles up to Angela. ‘Take these,’ she says. Her voice squeaks like an opening door. ‘You’re the librarian now. Remember: magic. And that there are no such thing as last words.’

Angela feels her jacket pull downwards. Placing her hand in her pockets, she finds four, thin, shuddering books. She strokes their backs till they are still.

Hedda is talking to the boy now. His face freezes with his eyes at their widest. She winks at him, at Angela, gestures with her bristly eyebrows to the exit and then sits cross-legged on the floor, holding onto one of the desk legs. Two of the demolition men pull at her. She holds on and starts singing a low, lilting song that increases in volume and hangs in the air like the last word of a ghost story.

Angela walks out of the museum, hands on the books to keep them quiet, waiting for alarms to sound around her. But they don’t. The boy walks out with the ashen skin of burned books. He sits on the steps with his hands in his coat pockets.

‘Come on, Angie,’ Dad calls from the car.

Angela runs up to the boy. ‘I’m at the top of the Trench Building. Number Not-Nine.’

He stares at her, then at his pockets. ‘Oh,’ he says.

*

Angela spends the next days in her room, opening the books, placing her fingers to the yellow pages, reading, living each story through, eating apple after apple core and occasionally thinking of how annoying that boy’s answer was. ‘Oh’. Huh. The books huddle next to each other, cooing like the birds in the communal gardens’ dovecote.

Her parents come in to tell her they have received a screen from the Museum of Last Things, saying that some of the books have gone missing. ‘We told them we wouldn’t know anything about that. It must have been that mad librarian. Should be locked up, that one.’

‘Like the things at the museum,’ Angela says.

‘Like you should be, in bed.’ Her mum replies.

*

Angela wakes, shaking, from her nap to the sound of banging on the door. She can hear her mum’s surprised voice, and agreeing voice. Leaping up, she goes over to the windowsill and her little library, stacked next to each other. Two men burst into her room. They take her hands out from behind her back and snatch the books away.

The man with a shiny head eats crisps as he rips. Tears form in Angela’s eyes as pages float down in pieces. He sweeps up the pages and tips them in the sack. Shoving his hand in, he pulls out four other books – the boy’s books – and grins a crisp-gummed grin. Angela looks down and sees one torn piece of poetry by her shoe. She steps on it. The men do not notice, they are too busy grinning.

*

Angela sleeps with the piece under her pillow and dreams of feathers floating down like torn pages, settling on soil and swelling into swans.

*

Next morning, after toast and chrysanthemum jam, Angela runs out to the communal garden. Digging with her hands, she scoops out the earth and places the piece of paper in the hole. It folds over once, bowing to her.

‘What you doing?’ It’s the boy, standing next to her, hands in his pockets.

‘What do you think I’m doing?’ Her face gets as red as the Little Red Book.

‘I’m Tom, by the way.’ He pulls a hand out of his pocket and in it is a crumpled piece of paper – a page from one of the books. Bending down, he places it with the other fragment and sprinkles on the soil.

‘It won’t work you know,’ he says. But he watches.

*

She watches. He watches. They both watch at different times, sometimes with eyes that hope, sometimes with eyes that don’t. Nothing happens apart from they both get tummy ache from eating apples and get cramp sitting cross-legged on the grass. After a couple of days, they lean against each other, first editions, and tell each other the stories they’ve been storing: new ones; old ones; stories that end badly; stories that do not end.

On the sixth day, the soil shifts. Angela watches as a hand reaches out of the earth, holding a book. The hand stretches out its soil-caked fingers and shoots into leaves; the leaves hold onto branches; each branch has a dozen or more books that breathe in and out, the branches to a trunk, the trunk to the earth. On the trunk, the knots are covered in open eyes.

Mrs Oldcastle from Number After-Not-Nine creaks out of her deckchair and walks over. ‘Is that a book?’ she asks pointing to one of the windfalls on the ground. She picks it up, puts on her glasses and dances a little dance. Angela has only ever seen her walk with a limp before but she scurries now, back to her room, smiling and muttering.

One by one, then in groups, first from the building – Mr Spedding, the Warden, the Eyebrow twins – then from the street, then from the outer towns, people came to get books. When they have read them, they come back and hand them in for another.

Angela and Tom sit by the library tree, handing out books, hearts stamped. ‘Do you think they’ll come for us?’ she says.

Tom takes a page and plants it in the ground. He places a finger to his lips. ‘Ssssh,’ he says.

Leaves float down around them, like feathers and last words.




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