The Lake and the Library


I swallowed hard and turned around in a slow, full circle, shining my flashlight out to scatter the shadows. Dust and cobwebs dominated the stagnant kingdom, a landscape that seemed to stretch impossibly; on the outside, it hadn’t looked this big. And the books — it didn’t seem like they had an end or a beginning, a head or a tail, and I wasn’t about to find either and spoil the magic. The very walls were shelves, with balconies above, bigger case units below, and ladders to climb or slide along the shelves to my heart’s desire. There were even untouched, austerely upholstered chairs tucked into reading desks, a place where spectres confessed dark deeds and ghosts cleaved to their books on philosophy, making little use of the green teller lamps covered in capes of cobwebs in front of them. I saw all of these shadows with a new clarity, and so much more than that. Because the more and more I saw, the more this defiant feeling germinated in my small chest: this was my place. And with this jewelled key to Treade’s defiance in my hand, I could lock it all behind me and leave triumphant. The secret was mine at last.

Lake and the Library cover2But it was still a mystery, no matter how haughty I was. Ever since Paul got his first library card, he had tried to dig up any town records, photos, files, anything concrete to find out who the building belonged to (even before we felt it belonged to us). But all we had was poorly constructed hearsay, since the meticulously kept Treade archives had been burnt down forty years back at the hand of the archivist’s scorned lover (quite the scandal). So no matter who we asked or how we persisted, we were waved off, shooed away, told to “mind our own business,” and some, who were as ancient as the town and too slow to trust, said the place was cursed. That those who had owned it, who had built it, had never even been inside. “Rich folks and their secrets,” they said. It was the breeding ground of endings.

Now inside, seeing with my own excited eyes what the walls had concealed all these years, the mystery didn’t deepen — it dissipated. All bets were off. We had to start from ground zero, and all of a sudden I could picture the place lit up and alive, imagining that a long time ago there were people who loved this place, who were happy here.

The possibility flickered away in harmony with my flashlight. I smacked it against my palm and moved out of the rose outline, wondering how an entire town could totally ignore this book palace, and realizing that whoever claimed to have sneaked in here had to be lying; no one could have kept this quiet all these years. And the books… I trailed my hand from shelf to shelf, the gold foil stamping glittering when I wiped the grime away, the leather spines buttery and supple, too. I felt as though I was the first person to ever touch them, that each time my fingertips brushed across a book that it came to life, shivering to the depths of its saddle-stitching. I felt like I was on a mission to salvage every dreaming heart who stood outside of this building, or in Treade at all, who dreamed of something more.

After giving it another shake, my flashlight lingered dimly over a nearby ladder that soared up a free-standing bookcase. I think everyone who has ever felt that books provide sanctuary has dreamed of sliding on those kinds of ladders, little library birds darting from flower to flower for the hidden nectar at their hands. And I was no exception. Tucking the flashlight in the waistband of my jeans, I gingerly tested the rungs for splinters or faults, but my footing was sure despite my soggy shoes. About two rungs up, I reached out and snagged randomly, coming away with a gold-stamped cover revealing that Percy Bysshe Shelley was here, alive and well. “Death is the veil which those who live call life; They sleep, and it is lifted.” Up higher were more of his contemporaries, along with the reams of the poetry I always loved and tried to share, but they were few and far between who could dive into the lines like I could, and swim in pentameter like a wave. Even past the mud caked in my eyebrows or the damp clinging to my clammy skin, I felt like I was being embraced by long-lost family, like I was coming home, and all my years of loving literature and being called out as a nerd or a dork were wiped away. They gave me strength instead, pulsing their verses into me like currents. So I kept climbing. Hemens, Burns, Wordsworth, Tennyson beckoning to my occupied hands — one clutching the wooden bars, the other browsing. I gingerly wrested each book free, gave my noiseless respect, and shelved it again. And I climbed.

Suddenly, I had come to the very top of the shelf, and the end of the ladder. I chanced a look at the ground beneath me, only once, and I got the instant boomerang feeling of having come too high, too fast. I held on tighter and reassured my drenched feet that I was nimble and safe, and I was just fine where I was. Nothing could hurt me up here. I took my light out of my waistband, shining it around to see if I could find anything else brilliant before I started my descent, and something winked at me from across the top of the shelf. It was bound in bright silver, and it seemed like it had been discarded or simply forgotten where it lay, under a landing and just out of reach. I only wanted to see the title, feel the book’s weight in my hands, and savour it. I put the flashlight down on the shelf top and, hooking my ankles into the rung, started to rock the ladder side to side. It was jammed at the bottom and refused to slide where I wanted it to, and I wasn’t about to climb all the way back down to move it. Arrogance punctuated my struggle, and I started goading myself on. Lean out a little, I thought in a whisper. You can reach that, come on. Hands outstretched, ladder creaking underneath me, I gave it one more try. I lunged.

The second snap of the night, and this time not in my favour. As the rung broke underneath me, my wet shoes sent me wheeling in a backwards-forwards dance to get my balance again. I was forced to throw myself forwards and wrap my arms around the top of the shelf, clawing, one foot hanging free and the other still keeping a toehold on the ladder. I couldn’t scream — I was too busy trying to summon to my cause every fibre in my muscles to scream — and with one bad shove, the flashlight tumbled to the ground to explode in a rush of glass and metal.

Panic does not begin to describe what went on in my head. My free foot kicked out in the dark, trying to find a place to land, while the other was losing the toehold. I was hanging onto the ladder with my pant cuff caught on the splintered rung, but even that eventually ripped free, and the ladder shot away in the other direction. Very suddenly, very vividly, I could picture the way my bones would break on the way down, marrow slipping out like icy gel to outline my gnarled body. I screamed, trying to keep my waking dream death at bay, and I clenched tight to the bookcase, reining in my hysteria, because I could feel the heavy shelf rocking with every precious movement I had left. I tried to reach for the ladder again with my toe. No go. I don’t want to die, not alone, not in the dark, in a place where no one goes for fear of a curse or because they’ve just stopped caring. I could feel my joints popping and my sweaty palms slipping, the pain searing through my white knuckles.

Okay. Just focus. I felt around underneath me with my foot; there had to be a bit of shelf I could plant myself on and use to shuffle back to the ladder. My toe whispered past a bit of wood, a bit of hope. That meant I’d have to let go a little and slide back, gently, so gently, to ease myself onto it. My hands started loosening up, inch by inch, muscles cramping with the effort. One hand caught on something sharp as it moved back, feeling like a bug bite, but I ignored it. I was nearly there, my foothold halfway to secure. The sharp thing on my hand was starting to dig in, to nearly cut the flesh, but I was so close it didn’t matter. Just a little more. A little more . . .

I lost my grip in one horrible instant, and my weight came down on the shelf too hard, too fast. Crack number three, the worst of all. I felt the air grow leaden as I fell, heard books coming free of the broken shelf and smashing to the ground. Goodbye, Treade. I never had to leave you after all.

I jerked to a stop.

There was a hand around my wrist. An impossible, truer grip than I could have hoped for.

Excerpt from The Lake and The Library by S.M. Beiko © 2013 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.

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S. M. Beiko

S.M. Beiko works in the Canadian publishing industry as an editor and layout designer and lives in Winnipeg. The Lake and the Library is her first book, a YA novel.