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The Library is Open

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. Her newest novel is Call of Fire. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter @BethCato.
The library was open, all the good that it did. So far, only three flies had entered that morning.
Shawna knew it was almost pointless for her to unlock the front door and turn the front window sign to OPEN, but she found comfort in the routine, even though she spent most of her time outside. The Teen Readers' Club Edible Garden was more lush--and more necessary--than ever before. Few of the children dropped by these days, though. The town only had a thousand folks to start, and as the weeks had passed, more people had scattered to the winds. Rumors abounded of cities that still had electricity and some semblance of stable infrastructure, and of others where the situation was far, far worse.
She had debated making the trek north herself, to her sister's family, but who else would maintain the garden? Who would bring books and fresh produce to the senior apartments down on Brown Street?
Shawna liked that she felt needed these days. But maybe her sister needed her, too.
She tipped her pail to douse the tomato plants with water fetched from the canal.
Shoes scuffed on the gravel path behind her. She turned, a hand on the knife kept sheathed at her waist.
A man stood there, his tanned skin shiny with sweat. Dirt powdered his clothes brown. He held a backpack with both hands.
"I'm sorry. Is the library open?" he asked. "I looked inside, but I didn't see anyone."
"Yes, it's open. I'm the librarian. Shawna. How can I help you?" She eyed him with blatant suspicion. Not many strangers came around these days. The library was on the far side of town from the highway, which still saw limited traffic, most of it by bicycle or foot.
"I came," he said, unzipping the backpack, "to return a book."
She dried her hands on her hips as he held out an illustrated hardcover children's book--The Sloth and the Celestial Goldfish. She knew she should be more cautious, but she couldn't help but approach, hands outstretched.
"This is one of ours! I remember it!" She had read most of the small library's collection of children's books. "How did you...? Where did you come from?"
"I lived a few hours north. Well, more than a few hours, these days. My children's grandmother lived here in town. Edith Hernandez?"
"I knew her! She died, back before..." Shawna summed up recent events with a wave of her hand.
"Yes. I found this book at my ex-wife's place and thought it was only right to return it." His voice grew husky and he cleared his throat.
Where were the children? Shawna stroked the slick book cover, suddenly aware that asking about their whereabouts would gut this man faster than the knife sheathed at her side.
"Come with me," she said.
She guided him inside. The eeriness of the library at this time of day still unsettled her. The clamorous toddler program should be underway on the rug as the Wednesday senior group camped at their usual table near the magazine shelf, where they groused over crossword clues and compared health woes. The clitter-clack of computer keys should provide a discordant soundtrack.
Now, the computer monitors stared outward, blank and black. Shawna had drawn happy faces on the dusty screens a few weeks back, and her fingermarks were hard to see now. The accumulation of dust and the dead violets on the counter embarrassed her. This man had come a long way. The library should look better than this.
He didn't seem to notice, though. He craned his head and took in everything, a faint smile on his lips. "I remember coming here with them once."
She hesitated at the doorway to the children's section, belatedly wondering if it would pain him to be there, then walked on. She found the book's home and slid it onto the shelf.
"I'll record that it's been returned," she said. "Can I help you find anything else?"
An odd sense of normalcy came over her. Uttering those words was as comfortable as slipping into a favorite pair of sweat pants. The few people who came by these days didn't need much assistance. They spoke with her in the garden, then went straight to the do-it-yourself section.
Her question stunned him. "Check out another book? But I don't know if I'll be back. I don't know if I can come back."
"I know what we can do." She guided him back to a revolving wire bookcase. "These donated paperbacks aren't checked out. People can read them or keep them at their leisure."
He reached for a book, his fingers stroking the stamped mark across the top pages. "You're sure?" Yearning softened his voice.
"Of course. Take that one. It just came out in paperback earlier this year. It's good, lots of action, but hopeful."
"Hopeful," he murmured as he tucked it into his laden backpack. The small book fit without issue. He straightened, pack slung over his shoulder. "I should be headed out. I have a long way to go today."
He didn't offer a destination, so Shawna didn't ask. "Thanks for coming by!"
In his absence, all was quiet again but for the buzzing of a distant fly. The return to reality left her dazed. She sat at her desk, as if on autopilot, and opened the journal where she now hand-wrote returns.
"The Sloth and the Celestial Goldfish, returned by... Edith Hernandez." That would do. Shawna put down the pencil. She knew she should return to the garden, but she couldn't move quite yet.
The library was open, after all. This seat was where she belonged.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 15th, 2018


I often write variations on the apocalypse and the human response to it. We are, ultimately, creatures of habit. We need the familiar. Some people need to mow the lawn once the grass reaches a certain height--and an event like the fall of civilization won't change that. Workers may need to idle at their work places, because that's where they should be from 9 to 5. And if a library book is past due, well, it should be returned, with apologies. These habits may seem like a stupid form of denial to some folks, but I see these rituals as necessary, as cozy, and foremost, as actions of hope.

- Beth Cato

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