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Lost for words

The sunlight streamed down from the domed roof. Susan loved this time of the day when the library was quiet. The floor remained clean of any debris brought in by the public, the heating was on, and the radiators were beginning to tick as they expanded.

By Wilkie StewartPublished 3 years ago 4 min read
Reading Room

The sunlight streamed down from the domed roof. Susan loved this time of the day when the library was quiet. The floor remained clean of any debris brought in by the public, the heating was on, and the radiators were beginning to tick as they expanded. She tidied the information desk, laid out fresh copies of the lending rules, arranged the children's shelves. It was a job that she enjoyed, everything in order, chaos averted each day, watching the readers misplace items and quietly following behind to reorder according to subject, author, and title.

She looked at the clock above the door. Ellen was in the basement sorting the latest arrivals. She glanced at the rota. For a moment the names floated out of focus. Susan cleaned her glasses, and when she put them back on the names became clear again. She tutted, realising John was late.

"Hello." A woman with a large hat was standing at the desk.

"Yes," Susan said. "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for a particular book," the woman said.

"Do you have a title or an author?" She didn't drop her smile.

"No, I can't remember what it's called. I read it a long time ago."

"I see," she said coming around from her side of the desk to join the woman in the area below the cupola. John came in the door, laughing loudly on his phone. Susan looked in his direction. He shut his phone off and headed for the staff cloakroom.

"Was it fiction?" she asked turning her attention back to the woman beside her.

"Oh yes. We read it at school. I don't think I liked it then, but I've been thinking about it lately."

"What was it about?"

"It was strange. Set in America. Something about a giant pair of spectacles. Lots of parties. A green light. I think it was quite famous."

"Ah, I know the one you mean," Susan said. She began walking towards the modern classics row. "Here under F," she added. "Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby."

She pulled one of the two copies from the shelf and handed it to the woman. "Is that it?"

The woman opened the small volume and began turning the pages. The edition had several illustrations which, in an adult book, Susan didn't entirely approve of. It was the words that mattered. She glanced at the page the woman was reading but upside down it looked odd in this light as if it was blank except for a drawing of a mansion. "I'm not sure," the woman said turning a few more pages. "I don't remember any Gatsby, just lots of parties."

"Can I see?" Susan said. "Perhaps if I read you a bit of it?"

The woman handed the book back, but her expression had changed from mild confusion to something angrier. "I can read for myself you know."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. It's just that I know the book well. There's a scene that's quite memorable..." Susan paused, flicked through the pages. Every one of them was blank. There were just the page numbers. She flushed and pulled the other, older edition from the shelf. It was also empty of words. Page after page of aged but blank paper.

"Well, are you going to read some of it or not?" the woman asked. Susan handed her the second copy.

"No, sorry. I wasn't able to find the passage." She felt dizzy, steadied herself against the bookshelves. The radiators were still ticking as they warmed up, but the atmosphere was suddenly clammy around her. She reached for other F's. Forster. Empty. She dropped the book on the floor.

The woman bent to pick it up, groaning as she straightened. She held the book out.

Susan continued down the line, knowing instinctively where each of the books she had handled over the years were. Hemingway. Blank. Lawrence. Empty. She dropped each one. The woman headed back to the desk, calling for a "real” librarian. Susan ignored her. She pulled dozens of books from the shelves scattering them on the floor as she discovered the same thing. Page numbers. No words. No foreword. No dedication or title. She abandoned the classics. Instead, she pulled apart the reference corner, the children's alcoves, the best seller lists. She ignored John and Ellen who had joined the woman at the desk, the women conferring while he called someone on his phone.

Everywhere she looked the words were gone. Not just in the books, but on their spines, on the neat plastic signs that identified the shelves, on the posters on the walls. Even the EXIT was just a sign with an arrow and a man running. Had he taken all the words?

Susan collapsed on the floor. What if all words were lost? She felt a pain on one side of her head, a pricking in her eye. What if I am losing the words inside me too? She exhaled, folding in on herself, like the slow closing of a book.

Short Story

About the Creator

Wilkie Stewart

Writer of strange little tales living in Glasgow, Scotland. A former IT professional who loves literary fiction, poetry, Eurovision, art-house film, post-crossing, and comics. Walks daily with his camera when he can. @werewegian1 on Twitter

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