“I know it’s only my second day, but I think I’m getting used to this,” Binny said as the whoosh of the book closing punctuated her entrance back into the Library. She’d even managed to catch the book in both hands. She used it to punctuate her sentence.
Binny and Hermione had appeared in a room that was completely round. It was not the room in which they’d entered their books that morning. Packed bookshelves went all the way up to the very top of the domed ceiling, coming short only by a couple of feet where a circle in the exact center of the dome was covered in stained glass. The colored panes of glass depicted a book with wings.
“Well, you’ll have plenty of practice, so there’s no need to be in such a rush to get good at it,” Hermione said.
“You’ve got a lot of practice, don’t you,” Binny said quietly to Hermione as Arya and Katniss whooshed into existence.
Hermione looked at Binny for a moment looking like she was thinking of what to say. “I guess.” And then, “We should get going.”
Binny trailed the three girls trying not to lose them in the thick crowd of characters whooshing out of their books everywhere one looked. When the spectacle of characters popping out of books in a library the size of a small city had become commonplace for Binny, she wasn’t sure. That said, in her book Binny had a sister with a superpower. Binny wasn’t certain which of her lives was stranger.
Not only had Binny started to get used to the peculiar practices in the Stacks, but she’d even started thinking about what she did every day in The Madrona Heroes Register as going ‘inside’ rather than going ‘home’ as she’d first thought of it.
When Binny was inside, she had no memory of the Stacks, but when she was in the Stacks she could remember everything that happened inside.
Whoosh! A couple of aisles to Binny’s right, a thin boy popped into existence. It was Michel, from the previous night’s communal meal; the boy whose clam design was dumped by his tablemates. He looked just as miserable as he had the previous evening. Binny wanted to talk to him.
Binny decided to take a risk. It felt strange, like she was doing something that was out of character. But then nothing she did in this place felt quite like her.
“Hey, Hermione.” Binny grabbed Hermione’s shoulder before she disappeared into the crowd in front of her. “I’ll catch up with you guys later, okay?”
“But, what about dinner? And finding your way back?” Hermione said.
Binny tried to keep an eye on the boy as she spoke to Hermione. He’d let his book drop to the floor. “I’ll just look for the door home and I’ll find it right?” Binny said hurriedly.
“I guess so. If you’re sure.” Hermione seemed unconvinced.
“I can do it. I promise. Go on without me. I’ll see you before dinner,” Binny said.
Hermione thought for a second, “OK. But don’t’ be too long.” Hermione took one last look and then turned on her heel to follow Katniss and Arya who had already started heading out.
Binny waited another second making sure Hermione wasn’t watching and rushed over to where the boy was, but he was already gone. Binny rescued the book from the floor right before it was about to be trampled by a succession of characters. Binny didn’t think One would approve of just leaving a book on the floor.
Binny surveyed the crowd and saw the boy, Michel, heading towards a staircase. Binny tucked his book against her chest and followed.
Binny wasn’t quite sure why she’d decided to follow the boy. He seemed sad certainly, but what could she really do about it? He was sixteen, and she was ten. He probably would think of her as a kid. And doubly so, since she’d just appeared in the Stacks a day earlier. Though, who knew how long he’d been here. Binny trailed the boy.
The stairs would switch back and forth, first heading one way and then the other. They abutted the railing, like a zipper on an inside seam of the Stacks. As Binny descended, she got a better idea of how the library was constructed. Each level seemed to get a little smaller as Binny descended. It seemed like the overall structure was an enormous ice cream cone minus the ice cream of course.
Binny also noticed other things as she tried not to lose Michel. The further down they went, the darker the levels seemed. The décor had started to change. The furniture was getting heavier and more ornate. Books got taller and had more uniform looking spines.
After a time Binny thought that the material from which the Library itself was made was different. Binny was now descending on stone steps, and she was pretty sure that while the upper levels were lit with fluorescent lights and some chandeliers, she was passing levels with oil lamps and torches. Actual torches with fire and everything.
She couldn’t be sure, but she was pretty certain she smelled something burning. The clean comforting smell of books from the upper levels had taken on a stronger note of mustiness as Binny descended. The fire smell sat on the edge of that.
And then the boy abandoned his dogged descent and headed towards a warren of wooden bookcases. Binny intended to follow him but couldn’t stop herself from looking over the edge of the railing before she did. The smell of fire had grown stronger.
Binny wasn’t sure how many sets of stairs she’d gone down. A dozen? It must be more than that. A dozen dozen? Hmmm. Probably somewhere in between. Whereas from up above the bottom of the Library had looked impossibly far away, now it looked close. It was only a few levels below where she stood.
The empty space in the center was only a couple of hundred feet across now. And the space ended. It had a floor, covered in stones – large stones. Though from here it looked more like a roof over another level. The stones formed kind of an enclosure, and at their center was a small opening. A yellow light flickered at the opening. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet across.
Binny looked back to where Michel had been heading, but he was gone. She realized she’d dawdled at the railing a bit too long and had let him escape. But she’d had a general idea of where he was heading. Binny hurried.
It was easier to move down here as the crowds were considerably thinner. Everything felt smaller. Binny felt the wood floors give a little as she jogged, kicking up small swirls of dust in the torchlight.
Binny walked through the rows and rows of books. Still no trace of Michel. The crowd had thinned out even more though. She was all alone as best she could tell. And then Binny had hit the end. In fact, it looked like of the seven different habit trails she could have taken through this portion of the level she was on, they all ended at this very spot.
The wood floors had ended as well. Binny found herself standing on stone. Small benches had been carved into the curving wall. Binny was about to turn back, fearing she’d lost Michel, but she spied a three-foot-wide hole in the stone floor. As she approached, she realized it was a spiral stone staircase.
Binny was about to take the first step when the thought gripped her – what am I doing? Binny’s world inside her book had already been going kind of sideways, but this new reality of coming ‘home’ to the Stacks every day after living in her former life, was throwing her for a loop. Which one was real? Which one mattered? And why did this boy matter?
Binny didn’t know. But something was pulling her forward. Unless Michel had doubled back, he would have ended up here. And the only way forward was down.
Binny started down the stairs.
Unlike the previous stairs these seemed to not let off at each floor. Binny couldn’t be sure but it seemed like she’d gone down past several floors on these winding stone steps. Every time her fear rose in her throat, her curiosity pushed it down so she could just traverse a few more steps and see what was around the corner.
And then, Binny reached the bottom. There didn’t seem to be anything special, just a long hallway. Torches provided light. Binny’s footsteps echoed down the hallway as she walked.
The further she walked though, the less Binny could hear her own footsteps. Instead she heard a low rumble. A few more steps and the rumble eased into a dull roar with periodic pops, and snaps. The light was changing too.
The hallway ended in a ‘T’ and Binny wasn’t sure which way to go. The top of the ‘T’ curved like most things in the Stacks so Binny suspected it didn’t matter which way she went. No torches now. The light was coming from an open section in the wall. Binny approached the archway carefully and peered around the corner.
It took a moment for Binny’s eyes to adjust. Inside the archway was the largest fire Binny had ever seen. Bigger than the fire her dad would light in the fireplace back at home in her book. Bigger than the bonfire they’d lit on the beach one summer. To Binny it looked like the inside of a volcano.
Two figures stood by the edge of the fire. They didn’t seem to mind the proximity. For that matter, Binny was surprised that she didn’t feel any extraordinary warmth herself.
Binny refocused. She could only see the figures from the back but the taller one was clothed entirely in gray. That figure turned to the little girl next to her. “I know dear. I’m sorry.”
Binny recognized One.
The girl answered, “Will it hurt?”
The girl couldn’t have been more than six. She reminded Binny of her younger sister Cassie.
“Oh no dear.” One responded. “I’m sure it won’t.” One waved her hand near the flames. “See?”
“I don’t want to go,” The girl said.
The girl had a book in her hand. Binny squinted at the cover. It said Suzy Summer’s Tales of… and then the title was cut off. Despite the distance, Binny could make out a drawing of a little girl on the cover of the book. The little girl in the drawing looked kind of like the girl standing at the edge of the volcanic flames.
“I know dear,” One put her hand on Suzy’s shoulder.
Binny was getting exceedingly nervous. One and Suzy’s shadows loomed long on the stone floor.
“Maybe just one more day,” Suzy said. She sounded like she was trying to hold the tears back.
“It won’t make a difference I’m afraid,” One said. “You’re the last one left, and lucky at that.”
The girl seemed to gather herself before she asked one final question. “Do you think I’ll ever be able to come back.”
One didn’t answer but the look on her face told Binny and the girl everything they needed to know.
The girl looked away from One, held her book tightly to her chest and took a step forward.
Binny looked away. Afraid of what she might see. Binny hunched her shoulders, wincing in advance from the screams she was sure to hear. But there were none. Binny wondered if she’d imagined an extra pop or crackle from the fire. Binny gathered her courage and peeked around the corner.
One stood there alone facing the fire for a few seconds, and then suddenly swept her robe-like clothing to the side taking care that it didn’t touch the flames, turned on her heel and started heading towards the exit, and exactly towards Binny.
Binny ran. She couldn’t imagine she’d been supposed to see what she’d just seen. And while One seemed nicer than Two she didn’t imagine that her demeanor would stay kindly if she caught Binny spying.
Binny thought she was heading back the way she came, but for some reason the hallway she needed never appeared. Binny spotted a wooden door and tried turning the knob as quietly as she could. It was locked.
Binny heard the rustle of the fabric of One’s clothing dragging on the stones as she rounded the hallway only a few seconds behind Binny. And then suddenly, Binny felt a hand on her shoulder.
A man, maybe her father’s age, wearing glasses, pulled Binny towards a depression in the wall a few feet past the locked door. Binny had never seen him before in her life. Binny looked at his eyes behind his glasses. He was staring at her intently, and holding his finger to his lips.
He and Binny stood with their backs to the stone wall. It felt cool and smooth against Binny’s back. Binny heard One getting closer. There was no way One wouldn’t see them when she passed, even as pressed into the wall as they were.
The sounds of One’s approach stopped just a few feet away. Binny heard the tinkling of keys, the insertion of metal against metal, and the tumbling of the lock in the door. The door gave the smallest squeal of surrender as One opened it, entered, and closed it behind her. Binny heard the lock re-engage and then heard her own breath, heaving. Binny hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath the entire time.
When it felt safe, Binny took a step away from the wall and surveyed her rescuer. He looked just as relieved to not be caught as she was. He motioned her to follow him, and Binny did.
Three hallways, and an impossibly tall bamboo ladder later, Binny found herself sitting on one of the benches carved into the stone walls at the end of a row of bookcases. It looked exactly like where she’d first descended down the stone stairs, but Binny was sure it was a different place altogether.
“That was close,” The man said jauntily.
“Thanks,” Binny remained polite, even when she wasn’t entirely trusting. After all, she had no idea who this man was.
“No problem. Pretty exciting though.” The man seemed to be enjoying himself.
“Almost getting caught? I’m not even sure I was breaking the rules. It just kind of felt like I wasn’t supposed to be down there.” Binny said. “Is being down there against the rules?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Well, I’m new here, so I’m just learning what’s what.” Binny said. The man was kind of annoying. He seemed to know more than he was letting on.
“I’m pretty new myself to be quite honest. So it looks like we’re learning the ropes together.”
Binny looked at the man. If he was new, then he must be a character in a recently written and read book, just like her. Binny decided to introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Binny. I’m from the Madrona Heroes Register. You probably haven’t heard of it.”
“Oh? And why wouldn’t I have heard of it?” The man looked like he was laughing at a secret joke.
“Well, I don’t know. I just assumed it’s not very popular. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure it’s very good. Opinions around her seem to vary.” Binny said.
The two sat in silence for a minute. The man seemed to be chewing on something. Binny thought he would eventually introduce himself but he didn’t.
The man said, “Is that your book? The Madrona Heroes book?”
Binny looked down, and realized that she was still holding on to Michel’s book. Quite tightly in fact. “Oh no. This, well, this is someone else’s book. In fact, that’s what I was doing. Looking for him. His name is Michel. I saw him last night at dinner.”
The man held out his hand. “May I?”
Binny handed him the book.
“Oh, very cool. Jules Verne.” The man commented.
“I thought the boy’s name was Michel.” Binny looked confused.
The man flipped to the back and scanned the summary. “You’re right, his name is Michel. But the author is Jules Verne. You know, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? 80 Days Around the World?” The man looked at Binny as he threw out the titles.
Binny said nothing.
“Oh, of course, you haven’t read those yet.” The man waved off Binny’s ignorance. “This one is called Paris in the Twentieth Century.”
“Jules Verne sure likes to put numbers in his titles,” Binny said.
“I suppose he does.” The man laughed. “But this book is special.”
“Why?” Binny wondered.
“Because, this is the second book Jules Verne ever wrote. He sent it to his publisher who thought it was absolutely horrible. Now keep in mind, Jules Verne was a very successful and talented science fiction writer of the 19th century accurately predicting all sorts of things that would happen in the future from within his own fictional stories.”
“But his publisher didn’t like the book?”
“Nope. So Verne locked it in a safe. 125 years later, Verne’s grandson had the safe unlocked and found the manuscript. Needless to say, the publishers were all excited to publish it by then.”
“They changed their minds?” Binny asked.
“I think the ones who rejected it the first time were already dead.” The man thought for a moment. “I suppose that’s one way to deal with rejection. Wait until the people who reject your work die. Eventually someone who likes it will replace them.” The man laughed.
“What do they know anyway?” Not knowing what else to say, Binny echoed Hermione’s words from earlier. Binny was starting to think the man might be a little mentally unbalanced.
The man continued, “Anyway, your friend Michel is the main character in this book. Published over 125 years after it was first written and read.” The man handed Binny back the book.
“Well, that’s an interesting story and all, but I’m not sure that’s gonna help me find him. I saw him head down here somewhere,” Binny motioned around her, “but then I lost him.”
“Well, being new like you, I’m not sure I have any great knowledge of how to get around this place, but I think there’s one thing you could do that might help you find him.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Binny looked skeptical.
“Read the book.” The man smiled.