Disclaimer: The original version of this story was my submission to an open call writing challenge from Air and Nothingness Press. The challenge gave the story idea and guidelines that I followed. All winners would have their stories published in The Librarian Anthology. The Librarian was a character who could travel anywhere and to anytime, acting as a force for good. My story did not make the cut, but it's here for anyone who wants to read it.
A wise man once said, "Every story is worth telling in its time." This story is of a time when I felt helpless and uncertain.
I am the Librarian. I travel the multiverse and through time in search of those who need help finding the right story, the right bit of information, and the right inspiration. I basically do what every librarian ought to do. It's a bit hard to explain how I pick where to go. When to go. But somehow, there's a part of me that just knows when I'm needed somewhere.
Other times, it just feels random. But if you go in knowing you want to help, somehow you'll find a way to do it.
This is the story of 2020.
I arrived at the height of the fear. You could practically smell it when you entered a room. It was mid-March. The people were huddled in their houses. Waiting. The unknown threatening to suffocate everyone in its clutches.
There was a cold and persistent drizzle, and I shivered as my body adjusted to the temperature. I arrived near a library in a city on what normally would have been a busy street. I could always blend in wherever I went, but if anyone saw me here, it would still arouse suspicion. No one was out and about.
I tugged at my bag, which had chosen to take on the form of an artistic leather backpack this time. "Clever," I complimented. It had a small pocket on the side. I opened it. "Excellent," I mumbled as I gripped a key. I strode up to the library's door, the large "Closed" sign barely registering. Not for me.
I turned the key, which fit the lock perfectly and slipped inside.
It was already getting dark. I glanced at the clock on the far wall. It was getting close to 4:30 pm. 'A good cup of tea would be in order,' I thought. I opened up my fob watch, which not only showed the time but the year and my location:
March 18, 2020. Universe 1. Earth 1. The United States. New York.
I took in the familiarity of the library. I like to start in a library when I go somewhere new. Even across the multiverse and all of time, there's something about libraries that stays the same. It's one of those places. Even years ahead of when I was, when Earth would shift away from paper made from trees, the libraries would still have the smell. The comforting smell that seems to calm even the tensest person.
A library was just what I needed to begin to feel at home and get my bearings. I walked among the shelves, crammed full of old friends and some I had never met before. I reached out a hand to touch the spine of one. A hand... so I looked human this time around, which made sense. Yes, human and female. I was on Earth, after all.
I saw a computer lab, but I hesitated and felt my satchel. There was something in it already, and it wouldn't hurt to take a look before I resorted to what the humans on this earth called the internet.
I pulled out a book, The Historical Highlights of 2020. It felt heavier than a standard encyclopedia volume. It must have been a rough year, but for the moment, my remembrance of the period escaped me. Based on the quietness of the street and the smell of fear, there were serious problems afoot.
There was a cozy reading section off to my right, with a fireplace and everything. Oh, it was just one of the ones where you had to hit the button. Oh well. Ambiance mattered, so I flicked the switch. Even better than the cheery flames, the cupboard next to the fireplace contained everything I needed to make a cup of tea. I settled down into one of the reading chairs and turned on a side lamp.
2020. A global pandemic was one of the main events. COVID-19. Oh, and things really turned serious for this country in March. New York was a state in the U.S. that got hit the hardest. Maybe why I was here had something to do with the pandemic. I focused on the pages for March and April and was just starting on the sections about May when I heard footsteps approaching.
"What are you doing here? We're closed. How did you even get in here?" The old woman approached me, leaning on her cane, her left leg limping along. Based on where she'd come from, she must have already been in the building when I'd arrived.
"I'm the Librarian," I explained.
"Are you now? Well, I've never seen you before, miss. What are you doing here today? You know we planned to shut down for at least these two weeks. Maybe even longer if we have to."
"Of course. It's just that I had a key and wanted to get some reading done. The library's the best place for that sort of thing, you know." I smiled, trying to show my charming and trustworthy side.
She raised her eyebrows and considered me for a moment. "We must have the same idea then," she said finally. "I find it helps to dispel the fear a bit. Helps me forget my troubles for a moment or two."
"People are quite scared now aren't they?" I asked.
"No one knows what to do or what's going on. This virus. Leaders pretend like they know the answers, but the truth is no one knows. The hospitals are filling up, and we want to help, but no one knows how to help. And how do you help people with stories when they can't even come come into the library?" The old woman sighed.
I nodded slowly. "I want to help if I can too. I'm just not sure how yet." I flipped another page over in the book. The page showed nurses wearing masks, face shields, and gowns.
"The Librarian, you say." She tilted her head to one side, and I thought I saw a twinkle in her eye. "How long do you think you'll be here?"
Did she know who I was? She was a librarian herself, so it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Librarians have a way of hearing stories.
I looked her straight in the eyes and said, "As long as I need to be here."
"Well, then I'll leave you to it. Make sure to lock up when you leave. We are closed, remember."
The magic of the moment and the underlying message ended. "Of course," I said. "I'll make sure to do that."
She hobbled away, and I was again left in silence with my book. March 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic in one of the worst hit states. What was I supposed to do? How could I help? It's not like I could reveal the cure for COVID-19 that would be discovered four years from now. I couldn't even introduce the vaccine or the therapeutics that came out before then. Doing those things would damage the timeline, and I couldn't have that. There must be another reason why I was here. Something more personal.
There was someone here who needed my help. I just didn't know who or how yet. I sighed. It's not like there was going to be a sign that told me where I should go.
The rain outside had turned into a wet snow. I looked out the window and saw the street lit up with neon street lights. Across the road was a hospital. I reached into my satchel again and inside was a pamphlet for the hospital. It had basic information about the services offered and the back had a map of the building.
It was as good a place to start as any. At least I knew I was immune to the virus, traveler that I was. It would make getting in and actually being useful that much easier. But where to begin?
I scanned the hospital map. Sometimes the direct approach was best. Go up to the front door and knock. I glanced back at the history book and read the caption underneath the picture of the nurses.
In the early days of the pandemic, there were personal protective equipment shortages (gowns, gloves, and masks). Many hospitals implemented strict "no visitor" policies, and children could only have one parent or guardian present.
I wasn't a doctor, nurse, or any other medical professional. Right now would not be an intelligent time to pretend to be one. And if being a visitor wasn't possible, that left one other option open...
"And when did the pain start?" the receptionist asked me, taking a quick note with her pen. She kept her distance from me, her mask in place. She was even wearing gloves. With her thick glasses on, it was hard to make out much of her face, and her eyes darted nervously between me and her paperwork.
I groaned and clutched my stomach. "A few hours ago, but it keeps getting worse," I explained, squeezing my eyes shut for a moment. Make it believable but not like too believable. Some things don't change, no matter what time period you're in or planet you're on.
If you you want to expand the amount of time you spend in the emergency room, say you have abdominal pain. They're going to have to do all sorts of things to find out why you have abdominal pain. Diagnostic tests and lab work take time. Sometimes abdominal pain means nothing, and other times, your appendix is about to burst. Even the most veteran ER doctors can't tell with 100% certainty that someone is faking it, so even they have to confirm it.
"Okay, I'm going to need you to fill out this paperwork to consent to be seen and answer the COVID-19 screening questions," she said, handing me the clipboard.
"Thanks," I said, still keeping one hand on my stomach. I took the clipboard and sat down in the nearly empty waiting room. The clock on the wall said it was a quarter to seven. Perfect.
The hard bit about hospitals is that they don't shut down. There's always someone there, even during the graveyard shifts, which is how it must be. If I was going to make a move it would have to be now, at the change of shift. I watched the doors, and slowly the night shift staff began to trickle through the emergency room entrance, the only entrance still granting access at this time of night.
I watched one nurse, a young woman with her hair up in a tight bun, walk in. She strode over to the far side of the receptionist's desk, and the receptionist started to ask her about COVID-19 symptoms. Once she was cleared for duty, she scanned her badge on the door to the stairwell. I glanced up and saw the sign. That stairwell led to one of the general hospital floors. That's where I had to get. How did I know that? I don't know, but I did.
"Code blue. Code blue. Code blue." The automated voice went out over the speakers.
Someone was dying. A heart had stopped or someone had stopped breathing, and I saw my chance, as twisted as it was. There wasn't anything I could do for that patient, but I could make my move. The receptionist had left the front desk for just a moment to see what the source for the code blue was. It was now or never.
I wasn't sure it would work, but it was the only shot I had. My library key would be useless on the automatic lock doors, but I had one other thing I could try. I slipped my hand into my back pocket and found my library card. I scanned the card were the nurse had scanned her badge.
The door unlocked, and I went up the stairs, unnoticed. A library card is a key that opens many doors. I have a way of blending in when I want to, and a quick change into a pair of surgical scrubs was all I would need for the staff to completely disregard me. I'm the Librarian. I'm anything but normal.
The hallway lights were dimmed to encourage sleep when it was possible. Fat chance in a hospital. This was a general medical wing with at least 25 beds, and there were other wings across the hall. I sensed that every bed was full and that many patients were there with COVID-19. I listened, hearing the whispered change of shift reports and the beeping of cardiac monitors.
The insistent beep of a call light went off.
"Oh, he's calling out again? He's been calling out all day for the silliest things. He doesn't understand that he's in an isolation room." The tech sighed, pushing the button to answer the call light. "Can I help you?" she asked over the intercom.
There was a moment's pause and then incoherent mumbling.
"Can I help you?" the tech asked again. More mumbling.
The second tech, presumably one of the night shift staff, also sighed. "What room is it?"
"207. We only have so many gowns, so we've been hanging them up just outside the door," the dayshift tech explained.
I saw my chance. "I can check on him," I offered. "I think he just needs someone to be with him."
"Don't they all?" the tech complained. "It's not like we have time for that. No one does. Especially not in an isolation room. So you'll get it?"
"Sure thing," I said, striding toward room 207, which was just around the corner from where the techs were talking. Without needed a gown or gloves, I went in shutting the door softly. "Hello," I said to the old man in the bed. "Can I help you?"
The old man didn't seem to acknowledge that I was there, but his moaning stopped. I sat down in the bedside chair. "Hello? Can you hear me?" I asked.
He mumbled something under his breath. It sounded almost like "stay with me," but I couldn't be certain. I lowered my bag to the ground and opened it. A new book was in there this time: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. The bag was usually right about this sort of thing, so I pulled out the book. "Shall I read to you until you can go to sleep?"
He mumbled again, without opening his eyes, but this time I was able to make it out. "Every...story...is worth...telling in...it's time."
"How right you are," I agreed. I began to read in the singsong voice that often captivates even the rowdiest of children. The old man opened his eyes for a moment and saw me. He smiled and settled back on his pillow. I slipped my hand into his and read to him. His signs of fear slowly faded, and all that was left was the quiet breathing of a peaceful sleep. I closed the book and smiled to myself. This was why I was here.
That was how I spent 2020. I found them, and I read to them. Would anyone remember that I was there? Would anyone ever know? Most people never would, but to the ones that it mattered to, those moments would never be forgotten. I became a story in the years that followed 2020. Is there any better way for a librarian to be remembered?
Journal entry of a nurse: July 11, 2021
I hated a lot about that time, 2020 that is. It was scary, and tunnel vision was all we had. We had to focus on the patients' physical needs. We couldn't afford to think about anything else. It was important, and we certainly did the best we could.
But I felt terrible for the ones who were alone, the ones on comfort care who couldn't have family there. The ones who had to spend weeks in the hospital while they waited for negative test results. We couldn't be with them. We didn't have the time or resources to hold their hands and listen to them, and without their families, they were alone.
That's why I hope and believe that the stories of the Librarian are true. To think that there was someone just reading them stories, being there for them when we couldn't be is a comforting thought.
I saw her through the window in the door, just once. No protective equipment, just a pair of scrubs. But she had a leather book bag, and she was reading to the old woman in the bed. The old woman was smiling and laughing. She wasn't even coughing. She was just wrapped up in the story the Librarian was reading to her.
But when I looked back in, the mysterious librarian with her book was gone, and there was only the patient in the bed, sound asleep. Because sometimes a good story is all that is needed.
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About the Creator
Passionate writer that is enthusiastic about writing engaging, compelling content. Excels in breaking down complex concepts into simple terms and connecting with readers through sharing stories and personal experience.