Written by Matt Mutch
Inspired by the Art of Alisa Vysochina
I’d spotted her from across the street and stopped, abandoning my bike and my friend at the side of the road, darting across the empty road and across the strip of parking lot. It wasn’t panic compelling me, not exactly, but whatever it was was stronger than curiosity. I’d only been staring down at her in puzzlement for a moment or two before one eye opened, amethyst, and looked back up at me, quite nonplused.
She spoke first. “Hello there.”
My heart jumped in my chest. I continued to stare. I felt like I’d been caught. “Uh,” was all I could manage.
I blinked. “What?”
“Nevermind,” she said. “Returns?”
My confusion grew. “Huh?”
“Returns can go inside on the counter,” she said, closing her eye again.
“I’m not returning anything.”
“Awk,” she said flatly.
Utterly bewildered, I wondered what was happening. Was this some kind of joke?
“Awk,” she said again, flatly, opening her eye again. “Repeating me. Like a parrot. Awk!” She squawked much more convincingly that time.
I considered just running for it. This was too weird.
She opened the other eye. “Do you need help?”
“Do you have a question?” She had a sort of a look about her. Like she knew something I didn’t.
“Yeah.” I did actually.
“How can I help---”
“Why are you sleeping on the front lawn of the library?” I blurted out. I breathed deeply. I felt like I’d been holding my breath the whole time.
She stretched her arms up past her head, eyes squeezing shut momentarily as she did so. She yawned, more of a sigh, and her fair skinned legs lifted off the ground as she shifted her balance around to rise to sitting. She looked up at me and smiled. “Because I was waiting for you.”
And that’s how I met Monet.
My mind was swimming suddenly. What did that mean? Waiting… for me? How was that possible? It wasn’t. I’d had no intention of even coming here until moments ago.
“It’s beautiful out.”
“Sure?” I said, finding that I was unable to follow her in the slightest.
“I didn’t want to just stay inside all day.”
“Sure,” I said again. It made sense enough. It was nice out after all.
“I’m the librarian,” she said, extending a hand. I took it to shake, and nearly toppled right into her as she put her full weight behind her grasp, using me to pull herself to standing. I managed to not fall and she bounced to her feet, brushing herself off. “Mona. Nice to meet you.” She held out her hand again. This time, it was for a shake.
“What do you mean you were waiting for me?” The question felt awkward but seemed fair.
“I figured,” she explained, looking down and twisting left and right, “that if I didn’t want to be inside, I could just come be out front, and that way, if anyone came by, I’d know.”
“Sleeping on the job?” I failed to mask my incredulity.
“Not exactly a high traffic time of day,” she said, looking back up. “I escaped!”
“Grass stains!” she declared, stretching her arms out triumphantly. It was true, her white sleeveless blouse and lime green shorts were clean.
I think I stared at her legs a moment too long. I looked back up quickly. There was no bother in her pale, purple eyes. In fact, she smiled. “You look like you need a book.”
“I-” was all I managed as she took me cheerily by the wrist and started for the main entrance. I looked down at her hand, and then back up behind me at the road where Jeremy was staring down, completely confused. I trusted he saw my matched expression as I stumbled into the library behind Mona.
The world inside was a whole other climate. The air was cold and sharp and dry. A single, weighty shiver rolled through me, enough that I shook free of her hand. She looked back, surprised. I raised my eyebrows innocently. “No, it’s not-”
“What do you like to read?”
I wasn’t much of a reader. I didn’t know what to tell her. I didn’t even really want a book. Things were just happening very quickly. She walked on. Accidentally separated from her, I stopped in my tracks and looked around.
What was this place?
The ceiling was the height of the building, a tall two levels, and the entryway was a generous open space with huge glossy tiles and wide open wooden double doors ahead and to the right. The main circulation desk was to the left, and behind it yet another set of matching doors but these were closed. A wide staircase, all right angles, and a couple of well worn arm chairs and small side tables filled in the space between portals and warm daylight shone down through a glass ceiling.
“Oh, wow,” I said, marveling at the quality of seeing the sky so unexpectedly after coming indoors.
“Nice view, isn’t it?” she asked, emerging from the doors behind the circulation desk, almost disguised in an oversized corded sweater the color of fancy mustard.
“You’ve got that look on you,” she said.
“You haven’t been here much, have you?”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to the town library. I’d probably been very young, if I’d ever been at all. I just shook my head.
“Never too late to start,” she said, coming back around the counter with an arm full of assorted books. “Come on, we’ll get you all set with something.”
The room beyond the doors was wide and sweeping, with an unexpected amount of the back wall being glass looking onto thick green woods. Shelf after shelf filled the room, but their orientation, perpendicular to the windows, almost channeled the light instead of blocking it. This place was strange, with a mix of old and new design elements, shelves wooden and stained, windows large and framed with stark black metal, contrasting with the lush forest beyond. It was so expansive but somehow had a coziness at the same time with the suddenly low feeling ceiling and thick, well traveled carpet.
“What do you like to read?” she asked.
“I…” I sighed. “I don’t know.” I had no better answer. I was distracted by how far the room seemed to go in each direction.
“What’s the last book you read?” She was earnest and unwavering.
“Uh. Maybe. Catcher in the Rye?”
“Oh,” she said about an octave higher, turning back to the shelves.
“It’s an American classic,” she replied.
“It was just for senior lit class.”
“Did you like it?”
“I don’t know. I Clif-Noted it.”
She turned part way and looked at me, one eyed in profile, that same enigmatic smile. “Ah.” She turned back to the shelves.
I felt like I’d said a bad word. “Uh. What about you, what are you into?”
Mona turned again, this time so quickly her hair flew in a wild burst of motion. This time, the smile was sharper, almost… secretive? “Come on,” she said. She pulled me along again, past all of the stacks, to a door into a stairwell. We ran up the stairs two at a time and she burst into the upstairs, which was essentially the same layout but even brighter with the sky instead of trees filling the windows, and we ran the length again of the building, to the end, to another set of doors.
Tall shelves stretched floor to ceiling, alternating widths with floor to ceiling windows, dark heavy drapes tied wide open, with four shorter bookcases filling in the floor space in the middle of the large square room. Large, dark arm chairs sat in front of a few of the windows. It was lit in addition to the sunlight by a warm toned frosted glass globe at the ceiling.
“What’s this room?”
“This one is my favorite,” she said, hurrying across the polished wooden floor and between the center stacks. “The sci-fi fantasy room.”
“Sci-fi fantasy? Like space marines and elves and stuff?”
She popped back to her feet from a crouch. “Sometimes even both, if you’re lucky. Do you like funny stuff?”
“Sure who doesn’t?”
“Very stodgy people.”
“True.” I pulled out my phone and google’d stodgy, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
stodgy (adj) Dull and uninspired, boring.
“Makes sense,” I agreed.
“So, you in the mood to laugh?”
She proudly presented me with a black paperback that just said “Don’t Panic” on the cover in friendly looking print.
“Seems like good enough advice,” I found myself muttering, accepting the book from her.
“He’s funny,” she smiled. “It’s one of my all time favorites, and a cult classic. It’s sci-fi, but it’s also a satire of sci-fi tropes, kind of a send up. And it’s really funny. Dryly, though, like British humor.” I must have given her a look. “Just try it. You’ll like it. It’s easy to like. And if you don’t, I’ll give you a full refund. Promise.”
“Thanks,” I said, gesturing vaguely with the book. “I’ll check it out.”
“Right,” she said, bouncing on her toes. “Time to check out! Unless there’s something else?”
“No. Thank you. I think I’m good.”
“Then, right this way,” she said, leading me out and down a different set of stairs, more directly this time. In a moment we were back to the lobby and as she rounded the circulation desk and she looked at me, expectantly.
I shook my head. “What?”
I shrugged. “Don’t have one.”
She reached under the counter. “I’ll need you to get a parent to sign off on this, I guess,” she said, producing a simple enough looking form and placing it between on the counter.
“I’m eighteen,” I informed her.
“Eighteen years old and no library card?” she chided with a smirk. I sighed in lieu of directly asking that she give me a break and filled out her form with a pen on a chain. She produced a small plastic card and took the form, setting the card down in its place with a satisfied snap of plastic.
“Strong name,” she observed. “Clay.”
“Just the one they gave me,” I said shortly. I’d never been a fan. There was some grand meaning to it I’d never put much stock in. “I think I was born looking a little gray, or something.”
“Well,” she said, stamping the inner cover of the book and closing it. “You took shape all right now didn’t you?”
“Um, I guess.” She seemed to always have that clever smile, even as she handed me the book. “Thanks, Mona.”
“Remember, bring it back in a week. You can renew if you’re not done, but if it’s late, I’m getting that quarter out of you.”
I smiled, but it felt strange and forced. “I’ll bring it back.”
“Don’t forget your towel.”
“You’ll see.” She smiled.
Doing my best to return her smile in kind, I ducked my head and started for the door. “Nice to meet you.”
I left the library. The world outside was different - bright and hot. It was so sudden it was imposing.
“What happened to you?” asked Jeremy, getting up from where he was sitting by the main door. Both bikes were there. He must have walked them across the street.
I answered him honestly. “I have no idea.”
“Get something good?”
“Who knows?” I held up the book.
“Don’t panic? Seems like good advice.”
“That’s what I said,” I informed him, shoving the book in the under seat bag on my bike. “Burger?”
“You always want donuts.”
“The holiest of foods. Change my mind. You can’t.” Jeremy was on his bike and heading out of the lot by the time I was ready.
I didn’t see that book again for about four days, until I spotted it on my nightstand. I was just getting dressed after a shower and it didn’t even occur to me what I was seeing until I finished rumpling my hair dry and saw the book, large friendly reminder adorning its cover, towel still in my hands. I remembered what she’d said and wondered what it’d meant.
I flopped down on my bed.
The insect sound was loud outside.
It was hot.
Insects always sounded like hot weather.
Or hot weather always sounded like insects.
I checked my phone but had no messages. No replies.
Where was everyone?
Rolling over, the green spine of the book was right in my face.
I picked it up and thumbed through the pages.
“I could have easily read this in four days, right?” I wondered. It wasn’t that long. I decided I absolutely could have.
“Mom!” I called, pulling on my shoes at the back door. “I’m heading out!”
“Where are you going?” she asked from somewhere around, unseen. “Do you have your phone?”
“Yeah, I got it. Heading to the library! Be back later!”
I thought I heard her confused as the back door banged shut. “Library…?” But I was already gone.
I wondered if She would be there again.
I coasted into the parking lot, which was nearly empty. My bike slid easily into the rack by the door and headed in. The blast of cold, I decided as I walked in, was reason enough to come here.
And there she was. Quietly reading, posted up at the counter. The place was silent as a tomb.
A grass green cardigan was over her white blouse with a matching green bow holding back her hair. I wondered if she tied it or if it came ready made. The contrast with her reddish hair was bold but seemed attractive in some way I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Hey, young reader,” she said cheerfully, noticing me walk in.
“Aren’t we, like, the same age?” I bristled slightly.
“Maybe,” she chirped, undeterred. “You’re early. By two days. Did you like it?”
“Couldn’t put it down.”
“It’s funny, yeah?”
I put it back on the counter and she accepted it, picking it up and flipping through. “I should read it again. Hard to go back when you’ve got such a backlog though.” She put it down and looked back up at me. “What’s next?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t expected that question. “Uh. I don’t know. What... would you recommend?”
I was starting to like when her face lit up like that. “Oh! Wow. I don’t know. Good question…”
“It doesn’t have to be funny,” I offered.
Mona nodded approvingly. “How about a classic?”
She smiled and came around the desk. As she swept by, I blinked at the top of her head. Was she always this height?
She smelled like fruit. And paper.
“You seem to get through books pretty quick,” she was saying. “Time to up the ante.”
It was around that time when I started to wonder what I was doing there. Mom took out books every couple weeks. I could have just sent mine back with her inevitable returns.
“Come on,” she said, already at the doors, realizing I wasn’t following her. I quickly caught up to her and we returned to the sci-fi and fantasy room. “How about space? Are you into space?” she chattered on as she walked. “I love space. Spaceships. Space cowboys. Space cows. Space whales.”
“I like my space,” I said absently. Had she said space cows?
“It’s the final frontier.”
“Sure is!” What did that even mean? Frontier? Like cowboys? Did she say space cowboys?
“Not all spaceships are like the one in the Guide,” she said. “Did you like that one?”
“It was okay.”
I nodded emphatically, feeling that strange lost feeling I’d had last time again. “Yeah, it’s a good one.”
“Spaceships, spaceships…” she murmured, touching a thoughtful finger to her lips as she ran the other along the spines lined up on the shelf. “Big ships. Ah. Classic.”
Never had a book looked more foreign to me, and I’d crawled my way through German language studies in high school. “Sure.”
“It’s old,” she admitted. “It’s about fifty years old. But, sometimes visions of the future can be ridiculous. And sometimes they’re sorta, I dunno, timeless.”
“Right,” I said, looking over the tunnel-like design on the cover.
“It’s okay if you don’t like it,” she said, “it’s just a suggestion.”
I looked up. “No, it’s fine, I’ll try it.”
“Good,” she said, brightly wrinkling her nose. “It’s worth a shot.”
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I took it out and checked. It was Jeremy wondering what I’d been asking about. I quickly replied I was at the library and he immediately replied with several question marks and then asked if he should meet me there. I said ‘sure’. “Sorry,” I said, looking back up at Mona. “Just… a thing.”
“It’s okay,” she said, bright as ever. “Just one, to go?”
“Uh… yeah. One’s good.”
“Okay! Then…” She reached out toward me. I watched her hand get closer, confused.
She touched my chest with her finger.
And then she pinched a stray hair, picking it off.
I remembered to breathe.
“Do you have a cat?”
“Oh. Uh. Yeah,” I said, literally every thought missing from my brain. “Must be from mom’s cat. Mochi.”
She dropped the hair and her eyes snapped to mine. “Oh my gosh I love mochi. Have you ever been to Han’s? They make the most amazing mochi donuts oh. Oh no. Now I want some.” She smiled, almost apologetically? “Now I’m going to be thinking about that all day.”
“It’s okay. To dream about mochi donuts is halfway to having them.”
“Yeah. Yeah I think that makes sense.” That made no sense to me.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s get you checked out so you can get started. You’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”
The walk back down to the front desk was quiet, except for her occasional soft chanting. “Mochi, mochi, mochi do-nut. Mochi, mochi, mochi do-nut,” in time with a soft sway of her hips as she stepped.
Exiting the library, it was almost déjà vu, with Jeremy waiting patiently outside.
“Almost one,” he informed. “You eat yet?”
I pulled my bike off the rack. “Ever had a mochi donut?”
“A mochi donut? No. But I’m intrigued.”
“I got a tip on some good ones.”
We headed into town, and found Han’s. The donuts weren’t like anything else either of us had ever had. I thought they were all right. Jeremy seemed to prefer a more traditional faire. The salesperson brightly informed us that they were gluten free.
“I think that’s what’s missing,” commented Jeremy, out of earshot.
“I like them,” I told him, squeezing one. “They’re bouncy.”
“What’d you get at the library?” he asked, chewing with long teeth.
“A book,” I replied, tossing it on the table. He picked it up and examined it.
“I see that. Why’d you pick this one? Are you into sci-fi now?”
“Just caught your eye?”
“It was recommended to me.”
“By that librarian you mentioned?”
“That’s good,” he said. “Reading is good. I think this could be good for you.”
“Right,” I chuckled. “Look at the size of this thing. I’m not doing this.”
Jeremy looked at me like he was looking through me. “That’s fair.”
I didn’t like the way he’d said that. “What.”
“Well,” he said, “Why do you have that book, if not to take it home and read it and enjoy it?”
I didn’t have an answer ready for him.
Again, I didn’t see that book for almost a week. The difference this time was that at the strangest times my mind would wander back to her.
I don’t really know what it was.
I’d see a certain tone of yellow, like dropping spaghetti into a boiling pot, and I’d remember that sweater she’d been wearing.
Dad brought in flowers from the backyard, and they were just this sort of bluish purple color and I thought of her eyes, with their unusual color.
Over almost a week, I started to see her everywhere.
In the little details of life.
And I wondered what she was up to.
“Mom!” I called out, grabbing my book. “I’m going out!”
And there she was. White blouse. Purple Jeans. Reading a book, leaning against the circulation desk. When I came in the door she looked up and she smiled.
“Hi,” I said, coming up and putting down the book.
“Hey,” she said. “Done already?”
Something smelled like lilac.
Was it her?
“Oh, right, I know this one well,” she said, opening it and flipping through the pages thoughtfully. “It’s a favorite.”
“Uh huh,” he said dumbly, unsure of what other words even were.
Closing the volume, she set it gently down on the counter and did that thing where she smiled and her nose wrinkled. “What did you like best about it?”
Suddenly, shock pierced through my chest.
“I…” I looked down to the book but she was leaning on it, waiting expectantly for me to answer. What had been on the cover, even? “I liked that the big spaceship was like a city.”
“I do too,” she agreed. “And. It’s such an interesting idea, to have it spinning to create artificial gravity. I bet it would work too.”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling quite certain more words should follow. “It does.”
“Does it?” she said, smiling knowingly.
“I mean,” I stammered. “It… in the book…”
“Right.” She straightened up.
I didn’t know what to do. My heart rate was elevated. How fast had I ridden over? It was always so cold in here. But I was still sweating. “Well. It was good. Thanks!” I said quickly, stepping back toward the door.
“You’re quite the reader,” she said, picking up the book and turning it over in her hands. “Surprised you aren’t leaving with another book.”
“I’ve…” I thought as quickly as I could. “I’ve got some stuff to do. I’ll… I’ll come back later.” Brilliant.
“Okay then,” she said, simply. “Have a nice day.”
Cursing my own awkwardness, I left as quickly as I could and took off in the wrong direction. I pedalled around the countryside for about a half an hour, inwardly cursing myself and wondering what the hell I thought I was doing.
I didn’t find any answers.
“I really enjoy our time together,” said Jeremy, taking the seat across from me. The smell of oil and potatoes filled the air as the sound of sizzling beef created a kind of a mute white noise. I barely noticed anything, scrolling on my phone. “It’s these moments, these real human interactions, that we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives.”
“Huh?” I asked, having heard him just say something or other.
“What are you looking at so intently?” he asked, picking up a burger and taking a bite.
“Amazon reviews,” I said.
“What are you buying?”
“I already bought it,” I said, gesturing to a short stack of three best sellers on the table, fresh packing slips still bookmarking them in random spots.
“Then why do you need reviews?”
“I need to know what they’re about.”
Jeremy thoughtfully chewed on a couple french fries. “Do you not understand them? Can I help?”
“I don’t,” I confessed, changing tabs. “This forum layout doesn’t make any sense.”
“Do you have a specific question you need answered?”
“I just don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
“That’s not exactly true,” he said, lifting the lid on a paper cup and taking a drink. “You’re very knowledgeable on a number of subjects.”
I finally looked up from my phone. “Like what?”
He looked back at me, mouth full of fries, eyebrows raised. He chewed. Chewed. “What book are you researching?”
“Hitchhiker’s. Rama. Lists of classics.”
“Why don’t you ask your librarian friend about them?”
“Why not? Isn’t that why she’s there?”
“I can’t let her know I’m an idiot.”
“That’s never bothered you before.”
I looked back up at him. He peered back at me innocently over the rim of his cup. I stared at him until I won and he broke his gaze. “If the books are too hard, just tell her you want something a little more casual. A little lighter. You don’t have to say you need easier books. I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“I don’t know if they’re too hard.”
“You don’t know?”
“I haven’t read them.” I didn’t look up but I felt him staring at me again.
“So the reason you don’t understand the books isn’t because you’re not intelligent enough, or they’re too hard, it’s that you haven’t read them.”
“Uh huh. Hey have you ever used Good Reads?”
“I have not.” I saw through my edge vision he’d pulled out his own phone and was looking at it. “I have a radical suggestion.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
A push notification flipped down from the top of my screen. Jeremy had gifted me the Hitchhiker’s Guide in ebook. “Just read the damn book,” he said matter of factly. I looked up at him. He’d stood and was eating a few more fries. “Crazy, I know, but worth a shot.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m going to take a hike. You’ve got homework. I’ll catch you later. Thanks for lunch.”
I watched him as he went.
Read the book…?
It honestly hadn’t occurred to me.
I looked back down.
He’d eaten my lunch.
I opened my reader app and loaded the Guide.
It was one of her favorites.
Before dinner, I’d met Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, and knew the dangers of Vogon poetry. I climbed up into the old tree house, long derelict, in my backyard, and in the fading evening light learned the true purpose of the Earth. By the next sunset, I knew the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
It was funny.
I looked up the other book and it did seem much different from the first. Feeling like it would be suspicious to go back and get the same book from her, especially so soon, so I bought it digitally instead.
And then I spent the rest of the next two days exploring the mysterious interstellar object Rama, a spaceship the size of an entire world it seemed. Jeremy called once or twice, but I had my assignment. More than obligation, I found I wanted to know what was going on, and was compelled to find out.
“I was wondering if I’d see you again,” said Mona as I walked into the library. “It’s been a bit.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I had some things I needed to take care of.”
“No need to apologize,” she said. “What brings you back?”
“I wanted to see you.”
She tilted her head inquisitively. My heart lurched.
“I…” I quickly added. “I wanted to know what comes next.”
Mona tilted her head the other way, amused.
I closed my eyes and exhaled. “I mean. I wanted to know if you had another book in mind for me.”
She smiled, soft and easy. “Ah.” She bounced around the desk, a worn looking brown book in hand, and with a swish of the odd green skirt she was wearing, led the way upstairs.
As she perused the shelves, in search of inspiration, I mused. “Space is really big.”
“Very much so,” she replied thoughtfully.
“I mean, if you think of how big the ship was in Rama, but it’s like, city sized? State sized? And the Heart of Gold, that’s sorta not that big, but I guess who knows, but it can get anywhere in the galaxy in like a second, which is great for getting around and all but you don’t realize how much ground they’re covering.” I frowned at myself. “Well. Ground sort of. Not really. But you know what I mean.” Mona was staring at me from a step up a rolling ladder. “What?”
She smiled like a famous painting. “Nothing.”
“How do they do it?”
“Do what?” she asked, climbing down and moving to the next shelf.
“How do they come up with these ideas? Giant spaceships? Different worlds?”
“I think it’s a combination of things.”
“Wonder,” she said, “and dreams.”
“Oh.” I didn’t really know what that meant. “Did they dream something, and write it down?”
“Maybe!” I watched her quietly, contemplatively browsing the books. There was something in the way she grazed each one with the barest tip of her finger.
“So you enjoyed a few,” she said.
“I did,” I said earnestly. “I never have. But I really did. I couldn’t put either one of them down. It was like I was there.”
“The only thing that gets you there faster than an FTL drive is a book.”
“It’s a thing with pages and writing.”
“Not that.” But Mona was already coming down the ladder and returning to the shelves in the middle of the room, on which she’d set her book.
“The only thing faster is a book,” she muttered to herself. Then she turned to me. “You ever play vintage computer games?”
“That’s fine, it doesn’t really matter. This.” She pulled her bookmark out of the book and handed it to me.
“Books, as transport!”
“You’ll see. Well. Spoilers. Sorta. It’s fun though. It’s a little niche but it’s a favorite.”
“Okay,” I said, “Thanks.” Mona seemed expectant for a moment. “Guess… check out time?”
“That one’s actually mine.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, handing it back. “I didn’t understand.”
“No mistake. It’s mine. We don’t have it. I’m lending it to you.”
“Oh.” I looked down at the book. “Are you sure that’s okay?”
“Yup. I know you’ll come back to me.”
I blinked. “Sorry?”
“I know you’ll bring it back to me.”
That… was that… that was what she’d said the first time, wasn’t it?
“Is there anything else you wanted today?”
“There’s something,” I said before I could stop myself.
“What is it?” she asked. “If you know, we can get it, or I can hold it for you.”
“It’s okay,” I said, “I know it will be here when I come back.”It seemed strange to take Mona’s personally owned book away from the library, basically right out of her hands in fact. But she’d offered it openly, and she hadn’t steered me wrong yet. I was interested, too. Books as transport?
The afternoon, however, had other plans, and I caught myself nodding in the light of the setting sun barely a few pages in. Drowsily, I clambered down from the treehouse and headed inside for an early night.
It was too early to be up on a saturday, summer or not. As I accidentally knocked over the short stack of books on my side table, I heard dad outside banging away at something or other and when I realized I wasn’t going to get to sleep in any longer, I picked up my book and went downstairs to see what was happening.
Pushing my way out the back door I stopped short at the grizzly sight before me.
My dad was pulling down boards off of the big tree. He was halfway done.
“Hey champ, how’s it going?”
“What’d you do to the treehouse, dad?”
“That old thing? Figured it was high time to get rid of it. Been an eyesore anyway. Clears up the yard don’t you think?”
I felt deflated. “Aww…”
“What’s the matter? You haven’t used this thing in years.”
“I just started again. I’ve been going up there to read. I was just up there yesterday!”
“To read…” he looked sort of puzzled. Contemplative. He looked down at the boards. He looked up at the half platform still remaining. Then he took off his gloves and scratched the back of his head. “Well shoot I didn’t know. I’m sorry bud.”
Prior to the last week, it had been years. I could hardly blame him for the mistake. I sighed. “Pop…”
“Look,” he said, gesturing, “I did it neatly. Most of the wood’s still good! I knew that going in. It’s a little weathered but, hey. Tell you what. Maybe we can build something else. Something new. Sound all right?”
I didn’t say anything for a minute. I let the hard fact pass over me.
Okay. “Okay,” I said. “It’s fine.”
“Gimme a hand? Last few boards?”
“Later? I gotta get to the library.”
“Library?” His eyebrows raised. “Can’t argue with that. Have… fun?”
“Thanks,” I said, heading for the garage. Maybe… maybe a bookcase? I started to turn back to say something.
“Hey,” he called after me. “Taking your bike?”
I heard the jingle of metal and turned just in time to see the keys aloft and snatched them out of the air.
“Wanna take the truck? Least I can do. You know.”
I looked at him. He was awfully sorry. “Thanks. And. It’s okay. Really.”
He thought about it. He nodded. “Have fun, bud. Drive safe.” As I opened the garage, he added. “Back before dark?”
When I arrived at the library, she wasn’t there.
An older woman, with salt and pepper hair, gravely regarding my thinly veiled horror at finding another person where Mona should have been. “Are you all right, young man?” she asked, taken aback.
“Where’s Mona?” I demanded with zero self awareness.
“Mona? Mona’s off today. Can I help you?”
“No,” I moped, marching straight back toward the door. At the threshold, I stopped when she offered:
“She might be at the street fair. It’s today.”
“There’s a street fair today?”
I exited the building and the view of a confused woman. I left the truck in the lot and headed out on foot. It wasn’t that far, and now knowing there was a fair happening, parking much closer promised to be a nightmare.
It was crowded, as expected, with most of the stores on Main Street spilling out onto the sidewalk to participate. Gaps and side streets hosted festive looking booths and food trucks.
I wasn’t really looking for her, I insisted to myself as I stopped off and bought a chicken kabob. I really wasn’t.
I absolutely was, of course, but I didn’t actually have any hope of finding her in the crowds. She’d be a human needle in a human haystack. So I contented myself quickly with the notion of just walking the fair and seeing what it was like, and possibly getting more meats on sticks, until I reached Han’s.
And there she was.
I think I bit straight through the skewer.
She had her hair back in wind braids and was dressed decidedly more for summer than I’d seen her so far, in a little yellow top tied in a bow across the chest with a daring keyhole and a playful fringe. It was offset by a pale blue skirt, but with pockets, like a pair of jeans. She spotted me as I spotted her, coming out of the eatery, a donut in each hand, one pink, one green.
“Is it a dream?” she asked.
My chest felt tight. I realized I wasn’t breathing again and willed myself to inhale. “A dream?”
“Have you had them?”
“Dreams?” I asked, mouth dry.
“Mochi donuts, silly,” she said, biting into the pink one and holding out the green one to me.
I took a deep, steadying breath and made sure I was looking straight into her guileless, pale purple eyes. “Yeah, I tried them the other day. They’re good!”
“The best,” she said, doing that thing with her nose again. “Are you enjoying the fair?”
“It’s nice. I sorta just got here. I didn’t even know it was happening.”
“Every year. It’s one of my favorite things about this town. What have you seen?”
“I didn’t see anything!” I felt my eyes dart down and immediately back up.
“Of course,” she said, tilting her head. “You said you just got here. My mistake.”
“It’s fine.” I breathed out in relief.
“I haven’t seen much yet either. Care to walk?”
“If you like.” She finished the pink donut and held out the green one again.
“It’s okay,” I said, “You, enjoy.” She pouted and waved it at me. I smiled in spite of myself and accepted it from her. “Thank you. You’re very generous.”
It tasted cool and smooth, like it was frosted with a hint of mint. It didn’t match with the taste of fire roasted chicken, but I didn’t care.
And then we walked.
But we didn’t walk far.
Mona started to say something about an upcoming sequel she was looking forward to but she stopped at the first booth we came to. It seemed to be all silk scarves. But she looked. And touched. And smiled.
The next booth was bird houses, hand crafted. She hefted one. Asked which kinds of birds liked which kinds of houses. As it turned out, it’s mostly dependent on the size of the entry hole, rather than the aesthetic. However, Mona felt certain that the “Bait Shop” would appeal to a different breed than the pub called “Cooped Up” would. The vendor agreed.
Then came hot sauce and spices. Several “bam!”s were exchanged cheerfully. In spite of assurance of any number of notches kicked up, she declined to purchase any.
A booth was selling pottery and hand thrown pottery dishes, decorative and functional. “Like it was made for you,” she said. Attention drawn, I tilted my head in confusion. Then I looked over the table again.
“Clay,” I said. “I got it.” I tried to smile but I don’t think I made her believe me. She smiled and did that thing with her nose but she covered her mouth sweetly with her hand.
“It’s fine.” I did then smile in spite of myself, meeting her apology with genuine amusement at her pleasure in her own pun.
“Are you having fun?”
I looked at her. The sun played over her red hair and her face and her bright, summery clothes.
“I’m having a good time.”
“Good.” With a cheery hair flipping turn, she carried on.
My name. Hadn’t she noticed my name somehow before? Curious, I took out my phone and quickly searched.
Mona. Origin: Arabic. “Desires. Wishes”.
Well. I admitted to myself, watching her skip to a stop at the next booth. Can’t argue that...
Mona looked at each set of wares as though it was new and enthralling, engaging in touch and smell, at the candle booth, and sound, like with the glass wind chimes, and even taste when available, trying cake, chocolate, and fruity spreads offered on tiny wooden spoons. I like to believe I managed “polite interest” and did get convinced to try fig and cheese, which turned out to be great.
“Have you been before?” She asked between booths, facing me and stepping blithely backward.
“Maybe a long time ago, with my mom or something.”
“I come every year,” she replied. “It’s always so fun.”
“It’s fun,” I agreed, watching how a tiny wisp of hair had fallen down along her cheek. She didn’t run into anyone, and I wasn’t sure how.
“What Age are you in?”
“Age? I told you, I’m eighteen.”
“No, not that. You must not be there yet. Have you gotten into a book yet?”
“Yeah, I started the last one, the one you loaned me.”
“Ah, you must not be there yet.”
I was pretty sure we weren’t quite on the same page, so to speak. “They’re on their way to Dunny.”
“D’ni,” she corrected, knowingly but not pedantically. “How exciting. I do like that book a lot. You should try the game too. I think there are sequels but I don’t know how they are.” Mona almost got back to the book she’d been starting to mention when we got to a handmade jewelry booth. There, she started to chat with the vendors, a husband and wife team, about the beads. I noticed there was a tray of name and word bracelets, with tiny little curved bands with names like “Ashley” or “Alisa” etched into them. I ran down the row quickly but was disappointed to find “Mona” did not follow after Molly, it was straight to Natalie.
I looked at the other tray, straight to the bottom, and sure enough they had one.
They had to have one of those.
I caught the attention of the man while his wife was occupied with Mona, or Mona was occupied with his wife, I wasn’t sure which. Quietly I paid him for it, hoping to not attract any attention. Then, just as she was saying goodbye to the craftswoman and leaving the booth, I tapped her on the shoulder. She turned, curious. I held out the tiny fabric pouch the craftsman had placed the trinket in.
“Oh. Oh my god, I couldn’t.”
I nudged at the air with my hand, just like she’d done with the donut. “It’s okay.” Tentatively, she accepted the bundle, like I was offering her something incredibly delicate or precious. I smiled. “Thanks for the donut. And. Thanks for introducing me to good books.”
Mona opened the pouch and fished out the thing inside. She looked at it very hard, turning it over in her fingers, seeing the little word impressed on the little charm.
She looked at me in a way she hadn’t before. Gone was her cheery, bemused, aloofness. There were no jokes or playful comments. She was looking straight at me for maybe the first time.
I blinked. Then I felt my eyes widen. “They… didn’t have your name. But. Mona means w- ‘wish’... right?”
When I remember back to that moment I realize that’s the moment her old affect returned. A knowing, aloof softness.
“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “Clever boy.”
“Yeah… no problem.”
“Um.” She looked down at the bracelet. Little silver beads. Little metal charm. “Right. Wish.”
As we walked away, I caught the man at the booth looking at me. He gave me an odd half smile and a thumbs up. I looked at Mona who was already on her way and then back at him. Smiling wryly, I shook my head.
You’ve got the wrong idea.
He just nodded and raised his thumb a little higher.
I chuckled and went to catch up to her.
What was he on about?
Certainly not… certainly he had the wrong idea.
With that, we were on our way again. As we went on, I wondered if I was crowding her. I wondered if she wanted to go on her way, have the rest of the day to herself. But every time I hung back too long somewhere or got distracted by something it only took a minute before she realized and stopped and looked for me, wondering where I’d gotten to.
Making sure I wasn’t “lost”.
Making sure I was there.
It was strange.
It felt nice.
We had lunch, sampling bits and morsels from the food trucks. At first, she was terribly interested in skeeball by the carnival games but after a few rounds and little more than a fist full of tickets to show for it, her interest seemed to fall off quickly, with an embarrassed smile and the selection of a pitiful looking fuzzy keychain.
“I think it’s a bear,” she said.
“I think it’s a rat.”
“I think it’s a harp seal pup.”
“Your guess is better than mine.”
She held it up, scrunching up her face cheerfully and waggled its tiny paws… or flippers… at me. I pulled my phone and caught a photo of her. The shutter sound gave me away though and she huffed at me in mock outrage.
“I… I’ll delete it if you want,” I offered, not wanting to upset her.
“What?” she asked, already searching her pockets.
She produced a key from her pocket and held it up triumphantly. “Is there something wrong with it?”
“The picture. Is it any good?” I brought it up and showed it to her. It was mostly seal pup, as it turned out. “You’re quick.”
“It’s an old phone.”
“Old or not, you captured the moment. Well done.” I laughed, a bit nervously, and she busied herself attaching a key to the ring. I guessed I could keep it after all.
Mona touched her finger to the side of her chin but had an idea before she could even fully act out contemplation. “Let’s go see the band.” I could barely nod before she had me by the hand and we were off to the bandstand.
The music was live and loud. A few people were scattered around at picnic tables, clapping as the band finished a song from the seventies and moved smoothly into another. I watched without realizing just how stark still I must have been, as Mona watched the musicians.
She moved in a funny way.
She moved exactly the way I’d imagine someone would dance if they were completely tied up.
And yet. She moved.
Rocking her head side to side, she looked over at me, smiling closed lipped yet so broadly her eyes squinted shut.
Mona reached for my hand.
She pulled me close.
And she moved her mouth right up to my ear and said something that surprised the hell out of me.
“This music isn’t really for me.”
I couldn’t help but laugh right out loud at her unexpected remark. Mona just lifted up my hand and twirled herself under my arm. Surprised by scattered applause, she giggled and waved as we left the performance space almost as quickly as we’d come.
Mona was saying something cheerily about wanting to hear the music until she actually heard it but I barely caught anything she said.
I was completely fixated on her hands still holding mine.
But after a moment, her voice trailed off with a word. “Hey.”
I looked up. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking past me. I turned to see.
It was Jeremy, looking summery and conspicuously holding a bag from Like’s Donuts. “Didn’t mean to interrupt. Just saw you and wanted to say hey. Hey.” He gave a wave to Mona. “I’m Jeremy. Nice to meet you. You must be the librarian Clay’s been talking about.”
“Mona,” she introduced herself. “Nice to meet you too, Jeremy.”
“Nice to put a name to a face. I’ve heard so much about you. Or---” he hesitated, catching the look I was trying to give him. “I mean. I’ve heard some things about you. Good things though. Mostly good things. A few good things? Briefly? In passing? What?” Finally he just shook his head. Apparently my insistence on ‘wrapping it up’ was completely inscrutable. “Anyway. It’s a pleasure.”
“Won’t you join us for a bit?” asked Mona. “We’re just sort of hanging out right now.”
“No…” he said tentatively, looking back to me. “No, I…” He gestured vaguely with the donut bag. “I have some important things to take care of. But you two have fun. I’ll catch you later.”
Mona cheerfully waved and with that Jeremy was off down the street. “He seemed nice.”
“What’s next?” I didn’t know, and told her so. “There’s something,” she said then, looking around the still bustling street fair, “but it’s tonight. Still a lot of time to kill.” We started to walk again, but without particular aim.
“Should I meet up with you later?”
“Oh, do you have to go?”
“I… well. No?”
“I…” she hesitated. I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard her do that before. “I don’t mind the company. If you don’t have to be somewhere.”
“I can stay.”
We stopped at a booth and she bought a peach tea. I got a soda. And we continued on. “It’s different,” she said, “this time.”
“Is it usually the same?”
“All I mean is, I’ve never really done it with anyone.”
Something tripped in my brain and I promptly choked on my orange soda, which made a startling mess and surprised Mona. “Are you all right?”
Grabbing up a fist full of napkins, I managed to quickly get the minor disaster under control. Nodding emphatically, even as I coughed up the extra sugary foam, I tried to salvage at least a shred of my dignity. With that mission barely accomplished, wiping at my face, I prompted her. “Sorry, you were saying?”
“Oh, right,” she continued, accepting that I was likely going to live. “I was just saying that as long as I can remember, I’ve always come to this fair alone.”
Oh. But. That didn’t make any sense. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t anyone ever go with you?”
“I guess it’s just how it’s always been.” Mona looked out across the square, watching all of the people wandering about. “I was never really burdened with an abundance of friends. Being a quiet little bookworm, hung up on scifi and fantasy to boot. Every small town has one. The only problem is, most of the time, there’s just one.”
I thought about what she’d said. She seemed so nice. How could she not have friends? How could she be so alone?
I wanted to ask something, even though I wasn’t even sure what it was, but Mona looked back to me excitedly and pushed her way through a door, ringing a carefully perched bell, and entering a place I’d never so much as darkened the doorway of. It seemed familiar enough to her though. Inside was wall to wall tidy clutter and more books than it seemed could physically fit into the narrow space.
It smelled like paper.
It smelled like her.
She was not slowing down, as she passed between the first few shelves and the sales counter, virtually camouflaged among stacks. Mona swept past a kindly looking woman polishing her glasses nestled in that niche with a “Hey, Pearl,” as she went.
“Monet,” replied Pearl, something between a chirp and a croak, barely stirring as Mona swept past. I realized as I followed that she did look up, dark, inquisitive eyes peering up, showing barely discernible surprise.
‘Someone else?’ they wondered.
I stared back, surprised myself, as I hurried after Mona.
What had she said?
“Mona,” I started to ask, and stopped short when I found her at the back of the store. The light was so warm, old incandescent bulb dangling off a wire in a bare glass bulb. She was crouched, balanced on her toes, by a stack, leaning up against the shelves, but free standing itself.
“I wanted to read in the park for a little while,” she said, skimming down the spines.
“Then why are we here?”
“Do you have your book on you?”
“Then, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” She stopped her finger on a title.
Somewhat insistently, she tried to wiggle a book out from far too low in the stack. As I watched, she freed the book, tumbled onto her rear, and looked up as the tower of books pitched perilously directly toward her. I leapt forward as though launched and caught them with an arm.
She looked up at me. Surprised? Impressed? “My hero.” Cheeky?
“It’s nothing.” I suddenly felt awkward somehow. I pushed the books into a stable structure again and she put out a hand. I took it and she pulled herself up, still holding the book she’d been so determined to have. She turned it over in her hands lovingly. It looked like some kind of thick manual for something.
“We could be wizards.”
She said it softly. I heard her clearly, but I let it hang in the air for a moment expectantly before I caved and asked. “Sorry?”
“Wizards love words, they can’t get enough of them. That’s the first sign.” She held up the little book with both hands, like a chipmunk with a nut. “Need a little magic in your life?”
“Uh who wouldn’t?”
“It’s not strictly science-fiction,” she confessed, “on account of the wizardry.”
“That’s fine.” I took the book from her. It did present itself as something of a manual. I flipped through it. It was assuredly a novel. I looked up to see her pulling something else off of a shelf.
“Do you know what Seveneves is about?”
“House with a bunch of roofs?”
She side eyed me over her shoulder. “He’s funny.”
“I have not read it.”
“I like the author,” she mused, mulling over a gently dog-eared copy. “You all set?”
We returned to the attendant near the front who peered suspiciously at Mona as she approached. Her eyes flicked over to me, and then back to Mona, who was scrounging in the tiny pockets of her skirt.
“He with you?”
“Yeah! Pearl, this is my friend Clay. Clay, this is Pearl.” My ears felt warm hearing my name in her voice.
“Haven’t seen you before,” she creaked.
“First timer, nice to meet you Pearl.”
Pearl eyed the book in my hands. Then she looked back to Mona. “First one’s on the house.”
“Kids don’t read enough nowadays. And you!” Mona looked up with a start. “Get going. I don’t need any more of your money today. Your name might as well be on the deed with all you’ve spent here.”
“Pearl, don’t be silly, you’ve gotta keep the lights on.”
“I’ll cut a hole in the roof,” she muttered. To punctuate, she stabbed at a button on the little register, and promptly slammed the cash drawer as fast as it opened. She gave a smile that was forced, genuine, sincere, and unnerving simultaneously. I’m sure my brow furrowed reflexively and I was also sure Pearl couldn’t have cared less. “Have fun.”
Taking Pearl at her word, Mona bowed and smiled at her, and then smiled at me and headed for the door. “Thanks Pearl, you’re my favorite!” she called back as the bell rang her exit.
“Thank you, Ms. Pearl,” I said, following Mona out.
I thought I heard her say something as we left, but I wasn’t sure.
“Oh, I don’t think I am anymore.”
We found a shady tree to sit under, out on the town green, and I was immediately invested in the vague coincidence of a young girl rediscovering old favorite books in the town library. The very corner of my eye caught a motion and I looked up. Mona had her book just open in her lap and was looking up at the sky through the tree branches.
“What happens when the summer ends?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s next for you?”
“Hadn’t given it much thought.”
“No college aspirations?”
“Not really. Didn’t do too bad in high school but not good either. The local community college here will basically just take people but, I wasn’t ever sure why I’d be going if I did. There’s work. There’s jobs. Could always work for dad for a while. He’d take me.”
“You have a lot of valid options there.”
“But…” Mona looked off to one side. “ I think you’re just selling yourself a little short. I think you’ve come a long way and have a lot more potential yet to be tapped.”
“So what do I do?”
“I can’t answer that.”
“What do you recommend?” The question was familiar. But the context wasn’t this time.
“It’s not up to me to decide. But my advice is to pursue something you really love and enjoy. Make that your life. Not just a whatever job because or school for the sake of school.”
When she suggested the pursuit of something loved something inside me tensed. But then I took in the rest of what she’d said. I tried to think. “Well. I love reading.”
“I’m not sure there’s a very wide career field in reading.”
“True.” Reading wasn’t an obvious career move.
“If not reading,” I considered. “How about writing? I love books. Maybe I could make one.”
“Yes,” she said, “of course you could.”
She side eyed me, since I’d picked up her tone. “It’s tricky. Writing a book is involved.”
“I know that.”
“Do you now?”
“I know books,” I said. “Now I do, anyway. How hard could it be?”
She smiled. I immediately knew I’d said something wrong but I didn’t know what.
“Sweet summer child,” she murmured, shaking her head slightly.
“What am I missing?”
“So much,” she said, not being mean, or rude or even discouraging. Just confident.
“Then. Tell me.”
“Tell me,” she replied back. “Tell me… tell me about summer.”
“Tell you about summer?”
“Tell me about summer.”
“Summer,” I said. “Okay.”
She looked up at me, kindly, gently, expectantly.
“Summer.” I already felt a hint of trouble. “Summer is… hot. Uh. There’s no school, unless you really messed up real bad the year before. There’s baseball and swimming and stuff. Lots of people go on vacation, like to the beach.”
“Yeah,” she slowly nodded. “That’s summer.”
“Yeah. It is.”
“Now. If you read that description of summer in a book what would you think?”
“I…” I thought about it. “I… well… if it were my book I’d have to edit it.”
Smile smile. “Yes. Perhaps.”
I sighed. “It’s not great.”
“No,” she said just a beat too quickly.
“They don’t do it on command,” I protested.
“No,” Mona agreed. “It’s true. They don’t.”
“So… so not fair.”
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s not. But it’s still illustrative. A bit, anyway.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “A bit.”
“It can be done though.”
A gentle breeze rustled by, causing the grass to wave. “Last summer, when the air was thick and hot and still, a boy found a girl asleep in a field. She brought him in from the heat and, finding he had nothing but time, she taught him how to read.”
“I’d read that.”
“You wrote that.”
“I didn’- What do you mean?”
She laughed, but just with a smile. “You’ll figure it out.”
I hadn’t written anything. I didn’t even have a pen. But she just looked at me and smiled.
We spent a little while longer under the tree but the shadows changed. I became aware again that I’d promised to have the truck back before dark and Mona offered to follow me back to my place to drive me back. “Is the day not over?” I asked her, half joking, half probing.
“There’s always the night,” she said, somewhat enigmatically.
I remembered the street fair was always closed with fireworks at night. She must want to see them. I agreed and we walked back to her car and she followed me home from the library lot.
Dad was grilling when I got back and pulled the truck in the garage. Mom was just bringing out settings on to the deck for dinner. I heard him asking her if there was another steak.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“We didn’t know when you were coming back,” apologized Mom, who paused as a little white car pulled into the driveway unexpectedly. It stopped and Mona got out and waved hello.
Neither mom nor dad said anything.
“Um, so, yeah,” I said, feeling a bit more than slightly awkward. “The uh, the truck’s back before dark. But…” I needed just a touch of luck. “I don’t have to be… right?”
All Dad had to do was raise his eyebrows and tuck his chin slightly.
Fat from the steaks sizzled on the hot coals.
“Right!” I said, “Right. Sorry. Mom, Dad, this is Mona. She’s the assistant librarian at the, uh, the library. We were just at the street fair together. Well. Like.” I thought about it for a second.
We had been together...
“Yeah,” was all I said in conclusion. Mom smiled cheerfully. Dad looked back reflexively toward where the treehouse had been. Then they looked at each other and both gave a sort of a silent, dawning “ahh”. Mona took a couple steps forward, but seemed to also feel uncertain as to what to do, and didn’t come any closer. I instead walked over to the passenger side of her car. “Okay so, I’ll see you later!”
As Mona and I got back into her car, with a couple of smiles I felt were just a little silly looking, they waved us goodbye.
“They seem nice,” said Mona.
“They are,” I agreed.
She reached to put an arm around me.
She braced against my headrest, as she turned to see behind her to back out of the driveway. I looked out the window, screwing up my mouth very small, hoping she hadn’t noticed my dumb reaction.
Back on the road, we started back for town.
“We’ll have a better view out by the lake.”
I came back to the present. “The… lake? But why?”
“What do you mean?”
“The town green is the best place to see the fireworks.”
“That’s not the real show tonight.”
“Well,” she said. “Fireworks are nice, but there’s something else I’d like to see.”
“Sure,” I said. Anything. Trusting her implicitly, as the sun started to set, we headed past town for the lake.
Once there, I lingered in the car, lost in thought, running back through the day, and then how we’d even gotten there at all, but Mona took no notice. By the time I got out of the car and figured out what she was doing, she was down by the water. I walked down to the long wooden dock and watched her as she went.
She stepped along stones at the lake’s edge, not going anywhere in particular, just once down shore, once back. She was humming a tune but it was one I didn’t recognize and she stopped as she made it back to the dock and hopped up, backside first, to perch neatly near the end.
She looked around to see where I was, and when she spotted me at the other end of the dock, I walked out to join her.
I sat near where she was on the side of the dock, hanging my feet off of the end. I looked up at the vibrant sunset, rich orange at the treeline fading smoothly into deep blue and then quickly becoming an inky blackness as the sun set and night fell. Mona lifted her legs up and swung around to sit off of the end alongside me. I kept my gaze skyward.
“What are we supposed to see?” I asked in a hushed tone, though I wasn’t sure who I’d be disturbing.
“It won’t be long now,” she said.
I made a point to sit still and not fidget.
The sky continued to darken. The moon started to seem incredibly bright.
Suddenly, she asked something. “Have you ever had a crush?”
Startled like someone falling, I grabbed the first thing I could. “I’ve had the grape. I prefer the orange.”
Mona smiled, still looking out at the lake. “He’s funny.”
Confused, I was glad I’d at least said something amusing.
Insects started to call through the dusk.
Then, though silent by distance, I saw it.
Like a befuddled comet headed up and out, the little point of light sped away from the world trailing little more than a strand of smoke behind it. We watched, she more eagerly than I, as it moved with terrific speed, yet at the same time seemed to move so slowly against the massive backdrop of the darkening sky. While it had seemed to start going straight up, it seemed to curve further and further, approaching sideways more than “up”.
I started to worry it would begin to come back down. It was basically flying upside down, but it continued on, ever upward still.
“I wanted to go there.”
“I wanted to go,” she said. “There.”
One long, slender, pale arm reached out, a straight line through a wrist and a hand and a single outstretched finger, pointing at the moon.
“To… the moon?”
“Or somewhere beyond,” she said softly.
“So,” I said, not exactly sure how to approach this. “So go.”
“Of course you can. You can do anything. Even if you have to go back to school or something. Study hard. They’ll---”
“I can’t see colors.”
“What?” I looked at her, confused. Some kind of non-sequitur?
“Did you like the sunset?” She just kept looking up at the sky, the rocket long since out of view.
I didn’t respond to her question. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“The human eye can distinguish over ten million colors,” she said. “But not mine. Shades mix. Fine distinctions are lost into each other. I’ve come to realize most of them are muted. Or so I’m told. I’m not really sure. It’s been this way as long as I can remember. It’s okay, though.” She looked at me then, eyes just catching a sliver of moonlight. “It’s part of why I like reading so much, I think. When the world is dull and vague looking, sometimes it’s just easier to live in black and white.”
I don’t think she was offended that I didn’t know what to say. She just sort of half smiled, which I tried to return, but she just turned back toward the sky and looked out as the last of the day faded and the stars began to shine. But I wasn’t looking at any celestial body.
I was looking at her.
There she was.
A fully formed person with hopes, dreams, experiences, aspirations.
And I, I realized, was not.
That last half smile.
Was it the same as all of the ones she’d offered up before?
I thought she’d been so cheery. And happy.
Hadn’t she been?
Or was that little bit of wistful sadness always there? Had it been the whole time?I swallowed, but it felt difficult somehow.
She couldn’t fly. They wouldn’t clear someone with colorblindness.
The only thing she wanted - to visit space beyond this world - she’d never have.
And what did I want?
I’d never really thought about it before.
Each day came. And then it went.
But. I was realizing there was something I wanted.
I don’t know how long we sat out there but the rocket was gone a while now and the moon was much higher in the sky when I heard her voice again. “Hey,” she said, smile on, just as always. “It’s getting late.”
“Right!” I said quickly, scrambling to my feet. “Sorry. Of course.”
Best smile on. “It’s okay. It’s fine.” She twisted her feet around and under and righted herself to standing. “It was a nice day, Clay. Thank you.” She jiggled her wrist out at me. “And thank you.”
“Of course,” I said again. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s something,” she said, starting to walk away from the lake shore. I followed along, back down the path, and listened quietly as she hummed that same tune from before.
She was humming to herself, but she wasn’t hiding it from me.
And then softly she started to sing.
Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on
Jupiter and Mars
All the way back, I just looked out the window, watching as trees rushed by and the sky seemed to stand still. It was easy to see the stars in our little town, and they were especially bright tonight, but, as I stared up at them tonight, they’d never seemed so far away. Mona dropped me off at home and with a softly spoken “good night” she was gone. I went to sleep soon after getting back, but that didn’t stop me thinking about her.
I was surprised to wake up to a warm summer rain falling outside. I found myself thinking “it’s about time” to myself as I got ready for the day, which my dad echoed aloud as I passed him in the kitchen.
“We’ve been needing the rain,” he observed. “Dry as hell out there.”
I agreed, since he wasn’t wrong, and got a plastic bag to put my book in. Shrugging into a rain jacket, I took a look outside, seeing the strangely bare looking tree in the backyard.
There were other options.
Declining the offer of the truck for easier travel, I set out in the summer shower for town. The rain wasn’t heavy, and it wasn’t very windy, so it took until just after the point at which it made no sense to turn back for me to realize I’d made a fairly severe mistake. The hood caught far too much air to stay over my head, and the jacket itself did nothing to protect my legs. By the time I reached the library, I was just about half soaked through.
“Good afternoon,” the head librarian greeted me as I came in. It was evident she noticed my condition but said nothing about it. It didn’t matter much to me, since a moment later Mona came out of the office with a pile of books in her arms.
“Clay!” she exclaimed, dumping the pile on the counter. “You’re soaked!”
She scurried straight back and returned in a moment with a big fluffy towel. With barely a “come on”, she had me by the hand and whisked me away.
I wondered where we were going but only briefly.
“They keep it cold in here,” she said, “but it’s always a little warmer in the sci-fi annex because of the big windows.” I admitted it was appreciably warmer than the lobby, by a bit, and she slung the towel over my head and rubbed vigorously.
“Mona.” She was busy doing her best impression of a clothes dryer. “Mona.” Finally she unhanded me, pulling the towel away from my decidedly rumpled hair.
“Thanks. Uh. Mona.”
“Why do you have a towel?”
“Silly,” she said, booping my nose with a terry cloth corner. “You know by now. You should always know where your towel is.”
I had to admit, she was right. It was an incredibly handy thing to have.
“I… you…” she looked down for a moment and pushed the towel into my hands. “You can handle the rest.”
I looked down too. Pants. Right. That was fine. I wrapped the towel about my waist. She touched a finger to her lips thoughtfully, ‘hmm’. Looking around, my book still tied to my wrist in its bag, I decided the towel was sufficient protection and set down in one of the oversized leather chairs. Shaking out the bag, I withdrew the book, careful to keep it dry until I caught a glimpse of movement and my vision turned yellow and fluffy. Dumbly, I looked up, which changed nothing, since there was a sweater over my head the color of fancy mustard. Peering through the neck I saw her there, looking thoughtful.
She was looking at me critically. “Warmer?”
I examined my very immediate surroundings. “Weren’t you wearing this?”
“Don’t want you to catch a cold.”
“I’m okay,” I said, starting to pull it back over my head. It was warm.
“Keep it on,” she insisted, “until you dry off.”
“Don’t you need it?” I asked, peering back out at her.
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
I wasn’t sure I completely believed her. It was cold in here. I could tell in my legs, which the sweater did not cover. Of course, realistically she’d be perfectly fine. It was a library, it wasn’t the frozen north.
I didn’t sniff it. I felt like that would have been exceptionally weird. But I couldn’t avoid smelling it. It still smelled like lilac. Still smelled like her.
Looking up from a color I’d never envisioned myself wearing, I realized with a start that her outfit was a bit more daring than I’d anticipated. A bit of purple lace interrupted a stretch of pale skin I’d really not expected to see.
I opened my mouth to say something, had no clue what it could possibly be, and closed it again. Despite that, she’d noticed something - probably my eyes getting really wide.
“Oh,” she said, looking down. “I lost a button. I forgot. I thought I could get through the day with the sweater covering it up.”
I quickly started taking off the sweater again.
“Stop that,” she said sweetly. Feeling uncertain, I looked back to see her doing the button above. Her shirt still stretched open somewhat... obviously though. But I stopped taking off the sweater again. I willed myself to not stare.
I still didn’t know what to say either.
Meanwhile, Mona just picked up the stack of books she’d come back with. “You don’t mind though, do you?” She smiled. “You won’t tell?” I slowly shook my head.
She wrinkled her nose and tapped a knuckle under her chin. Somehow, I immediately understood. And closed my mouth that had been hanging open. She laughed. “He’s funny,” she mused, moving to the stacks.
I watched her move on, and turned back to my book, but couldn’t focus on any of the words. My face felt kind of hot. I did get the feeling, though, that she was as sincere as ever. It was just an awkward moment between a lost button and an act of kindness.
I was pretty sure.
I was in and out of immersion in the book. Mona wasn’t a deliberate distraction, and I wasn’t following her around the room as she shelved returns, it was more like, I couldn’t help but notice when she passed by, and I’d look up, and watch her go, and turn back to the book.
Distracting, yes, but somehow comforting that she was near.
I started the page I was on from the top again.
Just as I was starting to focus again, I felt a hand softly touch my shoulder from behind. I looked up to see her looking down. “You look cozy.”
I blinked. As I shifted to look at her I felt the soft, corded sweater still around me. I’d totally forgotten in a moment. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Do you have a safety pin?”
“Then I’m sorry, I’m gonna need that back.”
“Yeah, sorry, of course!” I extracted myself from the cozy sweater and quickly handed it over. Mona shrugged into it as she had a thousand times.
“I’m headed back down. Enjoy!”
Feeling conflicted, I watched her go.
The room really felt that much emptier.
I turned my gaze back down to the book but it was immediately a lost cause. Rolling my head to the side, I stared out the window at the woods beyond. Then I waited for what felt like an eternity before getting to my feet and heading out.
I did not expect both of them to be there to watch me come back into the lobby. Feeling both of them tracking me with their eyes, I took a seat in one of the chairs off in the corner.
I knew they were still looking. Hazarding a look up, my suspicions were confirmed. Now we each knew the other knew that the others knew. After a moment, I insisted. “These… these are just way more comfortable!”
Mona smiled. The head librarian smiled too, but more of a smirk, and took some books into the office. Mona just kept her attention on the returns. Fending off embarrassment, I opened my book again.
Vaguely, I heard a melody. Mona was humming that song again.
What had the words been?
I didn’t think I’d ever gotten the name.
Even though I had nothing more than the sound of her humming, the little tune followed me home, lazily looping around in the back of my mind until I fell asleep that night.
I woke up with gasp as the sun hit my face the next morning.
Let me play among the stars.
Tumbling into clothes for the day, I leapt down the stairs and burst into the kitchen where Dad was trying to enjoy his breakfast. “Dad! I know what to do with that wood! I’m gonna need your help and the truck!”
He valiantly attempted encouragement in spite of his absolute shock and confusion. “All right, bud. Just, take a second. How about you tell me what we’re doing and we figure it out?”
At first he sighed like he was going to have to be the one to give me bad news, but I didn’t give him the chance.
I doubled down.
I’d seen what I’d need to do in my mind’s eye. And to his credit, he listened. He listened to his son. His son who’d barely picked up a hammer in his life. And after a moment, he nodded and said. “I bet we can figure that out easy.”
I knew what I wanted to make happen.
Now I just had to figure out how.
I was going to need a list.
I had errands to run, and figured Jeremy would be game to help, or at least make things a little less boring. My hunch was right, and I told him to stay put - I’d pick him up. Once I got there, he met me outside of his house, ready to go.
“What’ve you been up to? Getting lost in books?”
“Not exactly. Been busy. New projects.”
“Keeping busy is good. Where’s your girl?”
“Huh? Who, Mona?”
“Yeah. Your librarian.”
“She’s not mine.”
“You guys seemed pretty tight at the fair.”
“I, well, I dunno.” I felt a broad, nervous smile fall over my face and scratched the back of my head. “She doesn’t belong to me.”
“Not at all really.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“No I know.”
“Lunch on the agenda?”
“I’ve got to get out and get back, I’m working on a bunch of stuff. You wanna help?”
“What’re you up to?”
“Today? Shopping. Then sanding and staining.”
“How alliterative. I don’t think you can afford skilled labor like this.”
“What’s the price?”
Jeremy carefully considered the question. “A burrito. Or tacos.”
“Cruel. But fair. We’ll get you something on the way.”
“Sweet.” Jeremy seemed pleased at this turn of events in his day.
“Perfect,” I said. “Hop on.”
“This is new,” he said, not rejecting the idea immediately.
“I put the things on the back wheel. I just need to make sure I can actually carry a person.”
“I’m so proud to be your guinea pig.”
“If you’re good I’ll get you some hay to chew on.”
“The tacos will be fine.”
Streamers - Party Store
We headed down to the party store. A bored looking kid barely acknowledged our arrival from behind the register before referring back to his phone. Jeremy and I paid him little mind.
“There has to be a thing,” I was telling Jeremy as we prowled the aisles. “They make all kinds of explodey things that go pop. Usually it’s confetti or something but there’s ones that shoot out streamers. Hopefully they have them.”
I stopped by a tray of familiar little ones. They had pull strings, and promised to spit out a puff of paper confetti with a small but punchy pop. Jeremy was an arm length away, perusing some that looked a bit more pyrotechnic. “Long streamers?” he asked as I examined one of the champagne poppers.
“Yeah, I mean, hopefully. Like red ones if they’ve got them.”
“Like this?” he asked.
I looked up and there was a tiny explosion, just loud enough to irritate the ears without persistent after-ringing, and my vision was filled with warm colors as red, orange, and yellow paper streamers rushed at me, quickly catching air and billowing down around me. They draped over me, still connected to their source.
For a moment, I was startled by the noise and acrid smell.
“Hey!” shouted the cashier.
“Sorry!” said Jeremy, immediately turning in his direction and raising up his hands in feigned innocence, one still holding the streamer popper. “Accident! I will absolutely pay for that.” He looked back at me. I was definitely covered in streamers and paper shreds. He couldn’t see my nose starting to run from the burnt smell. “You okay bud?”
“We’re taking the whole tray.”
Paints - Craft Store
“Any more stops?” asked Jeremy as we walked into the craft store.
“Feeling hungry,” he clarified as we headed for the paint aisle.
“Almost done,” I said, “Just hang in there.”
“I know my value as a worker.”
“Couple of tacos?” I asked, running my hands down rows of brightly colored bottles. “Don’t sell yourself short.” I picked up a small tube of acrylic black.
“My rate just went up.”
“Yeah? How much.”
“Driving a hard bargain,” I mused, looking up and down the racks of spray paint.
“I’ll strike if I have to.”
“Your demands will be met,” I assured him, picking up a can of glossy white.
Jeremy seemed satisfied with the promise. I moved from spray paint to the other varieties, looking for glow in the dark. Dismayed with what I found, I picked up a jar and examined it critically. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Is this all there is?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s so small.”
“I’m going to leave that one alone.”
I looked up at him wryly. “This won’t do.”
“You’re setting them up, but I won’t knock them down.”
“C’mon,” I said, adding one tiny bottle of glow paint to my sprays. I’d find another way to do the rest. We headed to the check out.
Fairy Lights - Thrift Store
As we walked into the thrift store, I felt sure I must have made the right choice. I remarked to Jeremy: “If you’re going to find Christmas lights in August, this has got to be the place, right?”
“I’m sure there are any number of online vendors that stock them year round,” he replied without missing a beat. I considered what he had said as we strolled along the aisles. I hadn’t really thought of that.
“Let me know if you need any help,” offered a man at a service counter who looked decidedly uninterested in helping. He seemed to be busy enough tagging assorted clothing. Spotting promising looking wires, we headed down a particular row. Stopping by a bin, I picked up a wad of Christmas lights that looked fairly clean and new. Locating a nearby plug I plugged them in. Nothing happened. I made sure the plug was in the right way. I jostled the rats nest of lights.
“Find what you’re looking for?” hollered the clerk.
“These don’t work,” I replied.
“You want’em or not?”
I stared with a blank expression of disbelief for a moment. “No. No I don’t.”
He shrugged and kept tagging clothes.
“What were you saying?” I asked Jeremy, who was already on his phone.
“Fairy lights,” he said, handing it over. “Now lunch.”
“Wait a second,” I said, spotting something across the way. I picked up the conspicuous round shape and examined it. There were two.
At least I wasn’t leaving empty handed.
Slipping the one over my head, I turned to face Jeremy, my excited smile completely hidden as I slid the visor down over my face.
“Motorcycle helmet?” he asked, skeptically.
Smarter, Not Harder
As it turned out, I was more easily able to find glow in the dark paint online and in quantity, as well as yards and yards of fairy lights - almost shocking numbers of fairy lights. As I impatiently waited for the rest of my things to arrive in the mail, my days quickly became a new routine. I was mainly working with Dad when he was available for as long as he could spare to sand, shape, stain, and paint the wood of my old tree house into something new. Jeremy came around to help too when he could. Since the new construction was a bit smaller than the old, there was actually enough left over for a short bookcase too.
When we weren’t working on that, I was cutting up the heaviest paper I could locate in large amounts into particular shapes. They’d need painting too, but I was still waiting for the correct type to come in the mail. What I was able to paint, though, was my bike.
“Not Because It is Easy”
“This seems a little extreme,” observed Jeremy.
“I don’t think it’s a big problem,” I replied through my dust mask as I sanded what remained of the finish of my bike frame.
“What is it you’re doing again?”
“Painting it white.”
“With this,” I said, passing a picture I’d printed of an old, familiar, worm-like logo back to him.
“Have you ever painted a bike before?”
“Did the bike look like I’ve ever painted a bike before?”
“You could have had other bikes.”
“Besides,” I said, wiping dust off of the bike with a cloth. “If this comes out even halfway decently, it will be a serious improvement on what the bike looked like before.”
“But why this?” he said, gesturing vaguely with the picture of the squiggly black line.
“Because that’s what it has to be.”
“It’s a surprise!”
“But, being that I’m here right now, it isn’t a surprise for me.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“Then, it’s still a surprise for you, too.”
Flash of an Idea
Washing up from the spray paint job, I was still busy drying my hands as I walked into the living room and was immediately blinded by a bright pop of light.
“Sorry, sweetie,” said Mom, eye pressed to the viewfinder of a camera. “We’re just finishing up.” I blinked and blinked but spots still filled my vision. I’d walked right in as she was doing portraits. I hadn’t realized she had clients today. As my eyes started to clear up, I saw a neighbor’s kid was sitting on an apple crate smiling just the best that he could, smartly dressed in a button down shirt and a bow tie. Mom directed him to change his posture slightly and took a couple more photos. The fact that I wasn’t accidentally staring directly into one of the flashes saved me from further sight based struggles. As mom checked the back of the camera, I looked back toward the lights. They were positioned inside giant pillowy housings but the strobes themselves seemed to actually be fairly small.
And I looked at them.
They were so bright, for just a fraction of a second.
Mom was showing the neighbor kid his photo previews which he seemed to really like, but my curiosity was growing too fast to stay polite. I interrupted with an excited “Can I borrow this for a second?” and pulled one of the lights from its bracket and ran upstairs to my room.
I heard her yell after me, demanding to know what I thought I was doing but I was already in my room pulling the blinds.
A few of the paper shapes were nearly dry on my desk.
I shut the door, closed my eyes, and test fired the flash. Then I opened my eyes and saw the gentle glow of fully charged glow in the dark paint and smiled.
The bell on the door jingled as I entered. The air was stale but not unpleasantly so. It was the smell of gently worn paper, becoming more and more familiar to me. As I breezed through the recently used section in front, I saw Pearl seated at the counter, roosted. She eyed me with unveiled curious disgust. I tried to not take it personally.
“Good afternoon, Pearl,” I said, intending to pass on by.
I stopped and looked around. “Yes?”
“Monet?” Pearl just shifted in her seat. I took out my phone. “Chicago?” Pearl sniffed. “I uh. I dunno, Pearl. Maybe at work? At the library?”
“Hmph,” huffed Pearl.
I started on my way again. Then I stopped. “Pearl?”
“Hmph,” huffed Pearl.
“Why do you keep saying ‘Monet’?”
“How come you call her Monet?” I asked a little more loudly.
“‘Cause it’s her name, Clay.” Pearl helped herself to a butterscotch candy. I wondered immediately if I could have one too but opted to not open that line of questioning too.
“I thought it was Mona.”
“It is.” The candy clicked around in her mouth. “Mona’s short for Monet.”
“Oh.” That traveled around in my brain for a loop. “Wait they’re like, literally the same length.”
“Thanks, Pearl,” I said, heading for the back. It was warm, like it had been before, but not uncomfortably so. Probably that bare bulb burning all day.
I looked around at the old shelves positively crammed with books but wasn’t sure what to pick, or really even where to look. It didn’t take me very long to realize I didn’t know what I was doing. Continuing to browse, nothing jumped out at me. They could all be incredible, or I could be completely surrounded by duds. I had no idea, no rudder, nothing giving me direction.
I needed Mona around.
Remembering then the one she’d mentioned the last time we’d been here, I looked but there wasn’t another copy. There were others by the same author though and I chose one basically at random.
Might be able to beat the heat with a winter time story, I supposed.
At the counter, Pearl took the book from me and looked it over, turning it around and around quite a bit more than seemed strictly necessary. Eventually she punched a number into the register. It seemed fair and I paid her. She was still eyeing me though and I couldn’t figure out why.
Finally, I took the bait. “Everything okay, Miss Pearl?”
“You gonna see her looking like that?”
I shook my head. “Looking like what?”
“Got brown spots on your pants. Got silver in your hair. Is that what the kids are into nowadays? Is the grunge metal back?”
I looked down at myself. I hadn’t changed clothes before I’d gone out. Pearl wasn’t wrong - there was wood stain on my knees and I felt along the side of my head and discovered there were indeed bits of dried paint caught in my hair.
I gave Pearl a slow nod. “Right. Thanks, Pearl.”
When I got up to my room that evening, there was a book on the bedside table - the last one I’d taken out of the library was still here. I picked it up and leafed through it idly. I hadn’t finished it yet but it was pretty good so far. Coming to the back cover I saw the punch card and realized it was overdue by several days. Debating what to do briefly, I decided to return it tomorrow. I had a few others to get through and I figured I’d remember it and would go borrow it again if I felt I had to know how it ended at some point.
I’d gotten myself so busy, it’d been a bit and it’d be good to drop by and see Mona again.
I went to sleep with that cheerful promise in mind.
Cost of Lateness
When I got to the library the next morning, I entered the lobby and as expected, there she was, busy with something at main circulation. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw her, even as she hadn’t yet looked up. Something about seeing her just felt nice.
I walked up to the desk and gently set the book down on the counter. Mona looked up and surprise flickered across her face. She opened her mouth. Closed it again. Pursed her lips.
The usual cold air contrasting with the quickly rising heat of the day felt a little dry, a little sharp.
“Hey,” I said.
“Good morning,” she said, softly. Her voice cracked, like she hadn’t said anything in a long time. Maybe she wasn’t much of a morning person. I knew that feeling - I wasn’t either.
“Doing all right?” I asked as she pulled the book toward her and opened it to the back cover.
She didn’t say anything. She just scanned the barcode of the book.
I felt my palms start to sweat but I didn’t quite know why. It was so cold in here.
Mona looked up at me. At first I couldn’t figure out what was off.
Same mane of reddish hair. Same purple glasses she wore some of the time. Same giant, formless, mustard colored sweater.
As the corners of her mouth pulled inward, I realized.
She wasn’t smiling.
She wasn’t smiling at all.
“Hey,” I started, “are you---”
“It’s late!” she blurted out, and immediately buried her face in her sleeve covered hands, sobbing.
I felt my eyes get wide with horror and every muscle in my body tensed.
That seemed really, really excessive for a late library book…
Mona only lingered there a moment, crying uncontrollably, before she turned away from the still open book and hurried into the office, slamming the door behind herself.
If I’d known it was that important I would definitely have returned it on time…
Even as the thought did cross my mind I knew that couldn’t really be it, but I was so confused as to what had happened I couldn’t even move. I was stuck in place, staring dumbfounded at the spot where she’d just been standing.
I felt horrible. What had even happened? What had I done?
After another moment, the door opened and the Head Librarian strode out, business seemingly as usual except for a visibly squared jaw and eyes searing with anger. “Is there a problem?” she demanded with a hiss before she even took in who she was talking to.
Her demeanor softened, but only by a tiny fraction. She remained wound up to snapping, and awaited her answer.
“M’am,” I started, breaking into a full body sweat. “I promise you I barely said anything, let alone something to hurt---”
The Librarian glanced down at the book. “You’re late.”
“Yes, I can see that, but I didn’t realize---”
The Librarian drew in a breath through her teeth. I waited, silent and motionless. She tapped on the return card testily. Each second felt like at least a minute. I watched her eyes drill into me, then flick away off to the side, and then look back. She sort of looked like she was trying to get something out of her teeth with her tongue.
She was thinking very hard.
Finally, she exhaled deeply, almost physically deflating in appearance, suddenly losing most of the intimidation with a single breath. In a second she went from ready to kill to…
I felt like I’d just been hit by a car, just from the way she’d come into the room. And now that look.
“Where’ve you been, Clay?”
I blinked. “I… I’m sorry, m’am. I been a bit busy. With… with a project.”
“It’s… Don’t…” The Librarian hesitated.
She looked back over her shoulder toward the office but the door was still shut, blind drawn. She leaned in toward me slightly but I dared not move a muscle. “Clay.” She inhaled deeply and then exhaled. “I don’t know who you are to her, and I don’t know if something happened, or what, but over the past week and a half I’ve had to watch that sweet young girl lose every ray of sunshine in her that she’s been beaming with for as long as I’ve known her. And now that you’re standing here I realize you’ve been around a lot, and she’s been brighter than ever, which I didn’t even know was possible, until about two weeks ago, when you stopped coming around. And every day she grew dimmer until I don’t think she’s said a word since yesterday. Maybe the day before. So I know it’s none of my business, I do, and maybe it’s a very real reason you’ve got, but I care deeply about that sweet young girl so I’m going to ask you as nicely as I can just what do you think you’re doing vanishing for two weeks without a word.”
I felt my life leave me.
I think I actually died on the spot.
“I…” Panic swirled in my chest.
I’d … it’d been how long?
And I’d… I’d made Mona sad...?
The thought made me sick to my stomach. “I’ve… I’ve been making space.” The Librarian waited expectantly for me to say something else. My brain was doing flips. “It… I…”
The librarian sighed. “She missed you terribly, Clay.”
I felt hollow inside. I stopped paying attention to her disappointed face. Things were tumbling around in my head. I turned for the door and started to head for it.
By the exit, my phone made a noise and more out of reflex than anything, I reached for it and looked at the message.
There was a delivery for me at my house. The fairy lights were here, along with one other thing they’d claimed was ‘frequently bought together’.
I stopped. I looked up and around. I strode straight back to the desk where the librarian was still looking after me. “Who owns the woods?”
“Who owns the woods? Out back. Is it library property or… how does that work?”
“I don’t understand what-”
“Can I use the woods? May I?”
“For what?” she asked, exasperated.
“I. I need.” I stopped and tried to collect my thoughts. “M’am. I can explain. I can explain everything. But may I have your permission to use the woods behind the library tonight? Just tonight.”
“I guess? But I need to know-”
“Tell her. Please tell her for me. Tell her I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. And if there’s any chance she would forgive me, ‘cause I’m really, really sorry, ask if she would please meet me. Tonight. At the top of the hill outside, heading toward town, at dusk.”
The Librarian was sizing me up really hard, I could tell. I remained resolute. “It’ll be safe, I promise.”
She looked at me.
I looked back at her.
“One night. Tonight.”
I blinked and started nodding as emphatically as I could. “Yes, yes absolutely. You’ll never know we were there. Thank you!” I turned and headed for the door again, this time for real. There was a lot of work to be done.
“And pull all the curtains!” I said as I pushed the door open.
“Clay?” I stopped once more, looking back. “I’m trusting you.”
“The woods will be fine---”
“The woods aren’t what worry me.”
My head tilted. Then, ah. “I won’t let anything happen to her.”
“I believe you.” Nodding again, confidently, I left the library.
As soon as I was outside, I called Jeremy. “I need your help. The thing we’ve been working on, we’ve gotta do it tonight. I know it’s not quite ready but it’s close enough. Just come over. If you can. Please.”
Sure enough, he was there by the time I was back and willing to work. Dad helped us load the platform into the truck, and I collected the painted paper cut outs and the boxes of fairy lights and Dad and Jeremy gathered hammers and tacks and extension cords. With the uncertain but trusting approval of my mother, I gratefully accepted her speed lights and strobes in their protective case and promised their safe return.
We piled into the truck and headed for the library.
The only thing I checked for when we got there was to see if the windows were open but the head librarian had actually deigned to honor my request: the curtains were shut. Hopeful, we started to transform the woods, an effort that proved to take the balance of the afternoon, but we finished before sundown and with effusive, humble thanks I saw Dad and Jeremy on their way.
After securing a light to the front of my bike, I rode up to the crest of the hill, and stopped there. All around were fields of tall grass separated from the road with split rail fences. It wasn’t as hot just now. The evenings were starting to get a hint of fall to them.
Just a bit.
I really had been gone a while.
Cool air wafted by.
I wondered how long it would take her to get there. If she even would.
After a few minutes, I got off of my bike and stretched, watching the sun start to fade into orange. The road was empty. The only sound was the gently waving grass.
On a whim, I flopped down on my back in the grass and found it to be weirdly supportive, almost cushy. Almost as soon as I’d laid down, though, I heard a car stop at the side of the road and looked up.
It was Mona. She was getting out of her car looking on curiously.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I was waiting for you.”
“Why are you here?”
“I wanted to see you.”
“But… why are you on top of this hill? There’s nothing here.”
“Mona.” I said, scrambling up to standing. “I owe you an explanation. I’m sorry I made you sad. I’m sorry I went away for so long. I lost track of time, and I know that’s a terrible excuse, but I can explain if you’ll just… will you come with me?” I asked.
She tilted her head and gave me a confused half smile. “Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“You’ll like it. If you don’t like your surprise, I’ll give you a full refund.”
She smirked. “I don’t know if your bike will fit.”
I stood and picked up our ride, which she eyed suspiciously. “We don’t need the car. Park and get on.”
Mona stared at the bike, shiny and white, with the NASA logo painted along the down tube.
Then she looked at me for a long moment.
She reached into the car and turned off the engine. “Okay.”
“Have you ever---”
“I got it,” she said, stepping up and putting a foot on one of the pegs. I handed her a helmet. Eying me briefly, she accepted the bulky motorcycle helmet and put it on. I slid down the visor for her. She slid it back up with a bit of a petulant look.
I could not help thinking it was a little bit cute. I put on the other helmet.
“Can you do one thing?”
Mona nodded. I unraveled a string and handed the end to her. “When I tell you, I want you to pull this as hard as you can.”
If she wanted to complain or question, she didn’t. I turned forward and she leaned in close, shifting as she stepped up onto the other side, and wrapped her arms around me. Chest tight, I almost told her to loosen up until I realized it wasn’t her fault.
I remembered to breathe.
This was fine.
This was all totally fine.
“You set?” I asked.
“Yup.” As I pushed off, putting my feet on the pedals, she did say one thing. “Your headlight isn’t on.”
“I know,” I said, with a small smile unseen to her. “Hang on.”
The dark was falling fast, as fast as we were accelerating down the hill. I closed my eyes as I triggered the strobe and even thought I’d blinked, I was seeing stars.
Just as I’d hoped.
I thought I heard her gasp, and her grip around me shifted slightly. As we sped past the fence the strobe flared again and again, charging the stars we’d spent the better part of the afternoon tacking to fence posts and telephone poles along the way. The sudden light bursts as we past set the decorations aglow, and they seemed to get brighter and brighter as we sped by and the night closed in.
I grinned to myself.
It was actually working.
“Pull the string!” I called back to Mona. She took just a beat to collect herself and I could tell she’d done it because I distinctly heard the dozen party poppers burst off the back of the bike. I just hoped the noise pulled her attention to see the red and orange streamers that unfurled with them, whipping around like wildfire.
Our momentum carried us through the dip at the bottom of the hill and we coasted easily up the rise and I circled us around and into the Library parking lot and eased into the back overflow lot as close as we could get to the woods.
There, I stopped and Mona hopped off, pulling off the heavy helmet, still marveling or puzzling over the streamers on the back of the bike. I was already heading into the woods, and I looked back to see if she was following. She was, but her attention was still half on the bike, which was good. It was a hint.
Just deep enough to put a few trees between us and the rest of the world, I came to the white painted platform and stepped onto it. Offering her a hand, as a gesture more than any kind of necessity, she took it and stepped up after me, looking down at her feet as she did.
“Clay what is…” she looked all around as I stepped to the center. “Is this… the moon?”
“One sec,” I said, crouching down and picking up the two remotes I’d left there not long ago. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the buttons.
Faster than I could panic, I pushed them again, and the woods came to life. In a burst of light, the rest of the strobes fired and lit up a hundred glow painted stars surrounding us in the trees. Even as our eyes blinked away the momentary brightness, the thousands of fairy lights strung around softly came up to join the stars. Everything around reflected off of the silver dusted paint of the platform where we stood setting it ablaze as well.
I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
It actually worked.
Mona was looking around too. She gasped and covered her mouth, open in disbelief. “Oh my god.”
“Do you like it?” I asked, pocketing the remotes and picking up two stray pieces of wire. She didn’t say anything. I took a look around. I thought it looked pretty good.
I tried to wait. I waited as long as I could but finally, I started to ask. “Mona-”
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. She was quiet again another moment. She was hard to see, but I could hear her breath shudder. “It’s beautiful.” I could just see the outline of her face against the lights and she laughed, slowly shaking her head. “I love it.” She looked back out at the “sky.” “It’s wonderful.”
“This is why I’ve been away,” I explained as she kept looking all around. “I’ve been busy. Putting all of this together.”
“But what is all of this? Why?”
I lit the sparklers. They hissed to life and I handed one to her. “Let me play among the stars.”
“What?” she said, holding the sparkler with one hand and wiping at her eyes with the other, caught between a laugh and a cry.
“Fly me to the moon,” I recounted the familiar words, as a whisper of autumn air breezed through. Stepping away to the edge of the moon platform as the sparklers burned out, I reached down to the side of the platform, and pulled up a large piece of black fleece fabric. “Let me play among the stars.”
She looked like Mona again. “You heard that.”
“Uh huh.” I held up my finger - one moment - and disappeared under the dark cloth with one of the speedlights. Then a moment later I emerged, flipping the blanket dramatically around to reveal a vibrantly glowing mass of stars and constellations. I moved back next to her and pulled the blanket around her shoulders. She looked at me, a tearful smile unexpectedly direct. “If you can’t go to them, I wanted to bring them to you.”
I tentatively looked back at her, her eyes shining through the dark.
“Bring me the moon? And the stars? Really?”
She raised her hand, touched my face, fingers gently on my cheek, and she kissed me softly on the forehead.
“You would, wouldn’t you?”
“I would.” She looked around again, taking in the whole scene, like she was afraid it might vanish if she let it. I took a deep breath. “Monet, since I’ve met you, I’ve read a lot of stories.” There she was, all smiles. “But, the only one I really want to be a part of is yours.”
Monet. Origin: French. “To Be Heard”.