“May I help you?” I asked, finally finding my voice. I could feel the familiar heat rushing to my cheeks, and my armpits broke out in a sweat.
He gave no indication that he heard me, so I cleared my throat and said it again, a little louder.
“May I help you, sir?”
The stranger turned from the shelf and looked at me, a little surprised. He was no older than twenty. His dirty blond hair was cut short, and there was a splash of freckles across his nose.
“No, thank you,” he said and returned to examining the books on the shelf.
I faltered. I had no experience in how to handle this situation. I considered going back downstairs and pretending like I didn’t even know that there was anyone else in the library. But policy is policy, and drat that Crudley for being nowhere in sight.
I licked my lips and started again. My voice came out weak and shaky. “I’m afraid I must have you fill out a card before you can handle any of Mr. VanWauld’s collection. If you’ll just follow me, please.” I turned and started for the front desk, glancing over my shoulder to see if the stranger was following me. The sooner this was over, the better, and I could return to cataloging.
With a smile on his face, he dropped his hand from the shelf and followed me to the front desk, arms behind his back, as though he were enjoying himself.
I handed him a card and a pen. “We’ll also need some form of collateral, should you choose to borrow a book.” The words came out in a rush, and he lifted a bemused eyebrow.
“Very well.” I watched as he wrote his name down on the card. His penmanship was impeccable, not at all like the chicken scratch most boys scribbled down, and he scrawled each letter with finesse. E-D-W-A-R-D. Next line. V-A-N-W-A-U-L-D. I gulped.
“Oh,” I squeaked pathetically. I stood there dumbly as he finished filling out the card, too surprised to say anything, and too dumbstruck to stop him and tell him he had access to anything he wished, my apologies.
“Now,” he said, handing me the card, “You were saying something about collateral?”
“I didn’t realize—Crudley said you were—I mean, not that I know where you go, or anything—I just didn’t expect…” the words stumbled over themselves in a rush to get out of my mouth, and all the while, my face grew redder. Inside, I was smacking myself on the head with a hardcover book. Idiot! Dolt!
Edward interrupted me. “It’s all right. You couldn’t have known.”
I stopped my babbling abruptly, ears and cheeks on fire, wishing I could sink through the floor. If my calculations were correct, I would have landed on top of my desk, or somewhere in the vicinity, somewhere safe.
At that moment, Crudley appeared by Edward’s side. He had a habit of doing that, vanishing and appearing out of nowhere. It was surprising considering he was a portly fellow, who didn’t look like he could move anywhere in any sort of hurry. He poked his glasses a little higher onto his nose and said, “Ah, the young Mr. VanWauld. I’m pleased to see you have arrived safely back from the Wakhan Corridor. Come, you must tell me all about it! I heard some explorers were eaten alive by the inhabitants several years ago.”
Edward smiled apologetically to me as Crudley took him by the elbow and led him to the back office. I sighed and let my shoulders droop. The moment was over; I could return to my work and not do any more talking.
As I sat in my cramped office, surrounded by stacks of worn, dusty books, I couldn’t concentrate on the list of books in front of me. I had to reread several titles before they sunk in. Focus! I told myself. I was in my element, for crying out loud. I could deal with books. They didn’t talk; they didn’t require verbal conversation, and yet, I felt that I had a…well…relationship with each one. Each book was different. They spoke to me in a way that nothing and no one else could. I could focus on what they were trying to say, and even though I kept my responses to myself, I was given time and space to formulate them.
But the encounter with Edward VanWauld lingered in my mind, and I could not shake it off. It replayed itself over and over in my mind, like a record that had gotten stuck on the worst line in the verse. I imagined that I looked like a bafoon, bumbling and blushing like a lovestruck teenager. I hoped with all the hope I had in me that he did not interpret it like that. I tried not to think about the things I had noticed about him. His sandy blond hair and easy smile. I shook my head. I was such an idiot.
There was a knock in my doorway, and I looked up. My door had been removed from its hinges long before I started working at the library, but it never bothered me because nobody visited my office anyway. My office was the home to Mr. VanWauld’s under-the-radar-yet-highly-controversial collection on the unexplained, but I had since been assigned to organize the stacks of books into some semblance of order.
I froze. Casually leaning his forearm on the jamb was Edward. Panic time. I opened my mouth, but all that came out was “uhn—.”
He didn’t seem to notice. “I apologize for interrupting your work. It’s just that, well, I didn’t catch your name upstairs.”
I pulled myself together as best I could and choked out my name. “Anna.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Anna. I didn’t realize we’d hired anyone new. It’s been a while since I’ve been here.” Edward looked at me as if it were my turn to speak.
Nothing came to mind and an uncomfortable silence hung in the air. Well, it was uncomfortable for me, anyway. Edward seemed completely at ease gazing over the stacks of books from his spot in the doorway. I thought for a moment that I should invite him in, but decided against it. There was nowhere to invite him into. The room was almost floor to ceiling occupied by books, leaving only a small pathway to my oak desk and antique chair. Besides, if I invited him in, that would obligate me to have a conversation with him, which I was hoping to avoid.
Edward spoke again. “By any chance, have you come across a leather-bound book, where the title is a tree? No words, just a tree?”
I thought for a moment. I had a knack for remembering detailed information about every book I laid my hands on. Nothing popped into my mind.
“No,” I said, shaking my head for emphasis.
“Well, if you do, would you mind setting it aside for me and giving me a call?”
“Sure,” I said. I felt the end of our brief conversation approaching. Edward dug into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he handed to me.
“My number’s on there if you need to reach me. Thanks. And, again, it was nice to meet you, Anna. I’ll see you around.” He gave a little wave before turning and heading toward the spiral staircase that led to the ground floor.
I collapsed in my chair. What was wrong with me? I wished that I was like every other sixteen-year-old girl who could talk to boys—or anyone for that matter. I wished that my cheeks wouldn’t turn the color of Washington apples anytime anyone acknowledged my presence verbally, be it with an attempt at conversation or even a casual hello. I was cursed to live a lonely, lonely life. As much as my books kept me company, I sometimes felt like I was missing something. But that was only sometimes. Awkward conversations, like the two I’d had with Edward, reminded me how much of a social klutz I was. I dropped my head into my hands watching my brown hair brush the desk. Time to get back to work. Focus. I picked up a book. The title was in some language I did not recognize. The symbols were short, choppy, and boxy, and I’d seen them on only a few other books in Mr. VanWauld’s collection. I placed it on the stack of books that were similar. I still had not figured out how I was going to categorize them without knowing what the heck they were about.
I did not notice the time passing by, and before I knew it, the cuckoo clock on my wall chimed eight o’clock.
“Crap,” I mumbled to myself. I had skipped the dinner I had packed myself on accident. Oh well, Uncle Henry might have made dinner and had leftovers. I grabbed my jacket off the back of my chair and slung my backpack over my shoulder before I rushed out of the office. I still had calculus homework and an English paper to write.
My bike was locked to the railing that led the way up the steps to Mr. Van Waluld’s library. It was an old racing bike with bullhorn handles and spots of rust on the body. I didn’t mind it because it got me from point A to point B, but I often got looks of disdain from my classmates.
The bike home was quick. Eight blocks north, five blocks south. I drove past million dollar estates, which gradually gave way to smaller homes, which gave way to apartment complexes, which gave way to abandoned lots and liquor stores with bars on the windows. I parked my bike in front of the small brown house. One of the shutters hung at an odd angle and the front yard was overgrown with weeds and dandelions. I sighed. Home at last…if you could call it that. My Uncle owned the liquor store at the end of the block. The house was flanked by condemned houses, so Uncle Henry didn’t bother with keeping up the house. It wouldn’t make a difference in the property value, so there was no reason to waste the energy was what my uncle always said whenever I sighed as I looked out the window. It was a good thing I didn’t have any friends, otherwise I would have been mortified to have them over to my house.
When I lived with mom in the house on Baker Street, she always had the yard beautifully landscaped with hostas and dahlias and a veritable mix of other colorful plants and flowers. She used to work in the garden when she was stressed out. If I closed my eyes, I could still picture her kneeling in the garden with a floppy hat on her head, working methodically and tirelessly pulling weeds and spreading mulch.