by Rebecca Birch
“Can I help you?” the ghost whispered.
It drifted behind the dust-covered reference desk, an insubstantial wisp with a hint of long hair wrapped in an untidy bun and the barest glimpse of wire-rimmed spectacles. I tried not to stare. It had been decades since anyone had required corrective lenses. And, well, she was dead. She wasn’t supposed to exist at all.
I cleared my throat. The sound echoed in the library’s cavernous skeleton. “I’m, uh, looking for a book.”
It seemed colossally stupid, standing there among the empty shelves and cobwebs. The barest hint of old lemon wax hung in the musty air. I almost touched the dust on the reference desk’s broad top, curious to wipe away the grime and see the grain of the old wood. Real wood. None of the synthetic substitute used nowadays to simulate the nostalgic glory of times past.
The ghost adjusted her phantom spectacles. “Did you have a particular book in mind? Subject or author?”
I pulled out a crumpled scrap of paper with a single word scribbled in the center. I didn’t recall writing the note, or putting it in my pocket, but the word was underlined. It had to be important. “Crystal.” My too-loud voice echoed in the vast building.
She floated over the hardwood floor, her legs fading into nonexistence before they reached the ground. A thin haze followed her. I stayed well back and when she stopped in front of a row of card catalogs, the haze slid forward to reincorporate with the rest of her.
She pulled open a long drawer and began to flip through the emptiness within. “Cranberries,” she muttered. “Crepes. Crustaceans. Here we are, Crystal.”
I went up on tiptoes and peered over the edge, wondering if I was simply at the wrong angle to see what was inside, but all that met my eyes was the bottom of the drawer.
She glanced at an empty cup on the top of the catalog and made a disapproving sound. “Patrons have made off with the pencils again. No matter. This way.”
The ghost led me up a stairway to a broad mezzanine looking down on the ground floor. Tall windows lined the walls, looking out into heavy fog, its damp grayness beading on the glass. I tried to remember what was outside. Trees? Houses? Skyscrapers?
“Do try to keep up.”
I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking. I scurried to catch up.
“Are you interested in the scientific composition of crystals, or their more metaphysical properties?”
I went with my gut feeling. “Uh, metaphysical, I guess.”
The ghost turned between two tall bookshelves. She ran a misty hand along one of them before stopping and gesturing to a section of nothingness. “This is our selection of books on the subject.”
I didn’t want to admit I saw nothing. “Is there one you’d recommend?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t read any of these volumes,” she replied. “You’ll have to choose for yourself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to the desk.”
The space between the bookshelves was narrow enough that I would have to back out in order for her to pass me, but before I could move, the ghost slid through my body in a wave of glacial cold laced with the smell of musty paper and book glue. I closed my eyes, waiting for it to be over.
When I could feel my insides again, I reopened my eyes. The once-dim library gleamed. Sunlight streamed through the windows. Books filled the shelves, not a trace of dust or a single cobweb in sight.
I spun to see the librarian’s silver-laced bun vanish down the stairs to the ground floor.
This wasn’t possible. But, then, being in a library at all wasn’t possible. They’d been torn apart for scrap long ago, the marble, hardwood, and glass repurposed in the new world.
I pulled the nearest title into my hands and opened it, the slick dust-jacket smooth under my fingers. With no idea what I was looking for, I flipped through the pages, but found nothing that called to me. I put the volume back and picked up the next.
Book after book I searched until I reached a title that caught my eye. Crystal: Anchor and Key. Eagerly, I picked it up and opened the cover, revealing a small, velvet-lined compartment containing a long, thin crystal the color of the sky.
Recognition kicked me in the chest. I’d seen this, somewhere before. Somewhere I couldn’t quite remember. Somewhere I should be.
I pulled out the crystal and cradled it against me, my heart racing.
A cool, damp feeling, like a pale echo of the ghost’s touch, saturated me and then I was falling. I closed my eyes.
“Audryn? Can you hear me?”
I’m lying supine, a familiar face hovering over me. My sister, Maryn. Tears dampen her cheeks beneath her red-rimmed eyes.
“I hear you.”
Maryn sobs and pulls me into a fierce embrace. “You came back. No one who goes beyond the Boundary ever comes back.”
Yes. I remember now. We’d been exploring at the edge of the city. I’d toppled. Fallen through the Boundary . . .
I touch the necklace at my throat—the thin, blue crystal she’d given me for my fifteenth birthday. The anchor that bound me to this place. The key that brought me home.
Maryn wipes away her tears and helps me to my feet. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s get away from here.”
She leads me away from the thick fog that marks the Boundary. The same fog that had beaded on the library’s windows. Had it been real? Or nothing more than illusion?
The wind blows, dissipating the last ghostly scent of lemon wax and book glue. The City’s odorless sterility feels wrong. Like it is the real illusion.
But Maryn’s hand in my own is warm. Alive.
It’s enough. For now.
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Flash Fiction Online and she’s also a two-time finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short story collection, Life Out of Harmony and Other Tales of Wonder, was released in June 2017. You can find her online at wordsofbirch.com or on twitter as @wordsofbirch.
Rebecca Birch writes …
I must admit to having a soft spot for libraries. My local branch when I was a child was a grand old building with wooden pillars, marble details, floors that weren’t quite level, and a certain smell that has never quite left my mind.
While I still love libraries, the places I go to now are much newer. Shinier. Sanitized. The sense of character that pervaded the old library is missing. It’s that change—that sense of nostalgia—that was the genesis for Anchor and Key.
I wanted to take some time to relive those memories, and to consider what changes may yet come in the future. How much farther will technology and development bring us from those old card catalogs, hand-stamps for due dates, and book glue?
Anchor and Key is the result. I hope that you enjoyed the glimpse into a remembered past and a possible future yet to come.
I don’t normally read ghost stories, but – with a love of libraries – this one appealed to me. Libraries are, inexplicably, tied in with old, comforting memories of a warm,musty shed, paraffin and peeling, broken deckchairs,the potent aroma of paint, Daddy long-legs, and ‘forever’ days spent wandering in my paternal grandma’s garden. (I used to read her wonderful encyclopedias on a rug in the garden’s air-raid shelter, so that’s possibly the link!) Very well written and evocative.
The story conjures up a good haunting atmosphere and the ghost is well depicted. I just wish it was longer!