My grandmother’s last breath was a struggle.
“She died last night,” the neighbour came knocking. “It wasn’t a pretty sight. Poor sod, gulping for air like that.”
I called her “grandmother” even though she was not. She had taken me in, treated like her own. Told nobody. My actual blood was like seawater: thin, clear, choppy.
“You’ll need to get out,” the neighbour said. “Before the council comes to clean up.”
“But I’ve nowhere to go.”
“Here.” The neighbour’s speckled hand extended towards me: a parcel wrapped in an old band t-shirt.
And that was that.
The slippery buttons gave way beneath my fingertips. The door to the library opened reluctantly, heavy. The inside, empty like a cave, frightening at first, then familiar.
I used to work here in the summer. My grandmother — herself a retired librarian — persuaded her colleagues to put me on the rota. No questions asked.
I slid down the stairs, made my way across the landing, between Adult Fiction O-R and Arts. My fingers ran alongside the tall spines, the thickness of them like sturdy tree trunks.
Slipping to the children’s area, I wondered at the paper roses and majestic whales made from translucent foil. In there, I lay down my coat, moved soft cushions from the reading corner, collapsed down with a sigh. From a shelf, I pulled out a book of fairy tales and remembered my grandmother’s hoarse voice reading to me about bad omens, werewolves, red apples. I let out a cry. My back moved in chaotic rhythms like I were a sick, whimpering cat.
Out of the old t-shirt came a sandwich, on my favourite crumbly bread, with mayonnaise and pickle. Whenever I visited my neighbour, she would always make me one just like that. It fed my grief now.
I covered my arms with a scarf and fell asleep. Nested in, worn out.
The 5 am alarm woke me. Confused at first, I soon remembered that grandmother was dead. I didn’t have to wake this early any longer. I moved from between shelves and found my way to the communal kitchen.
My mug, pink with a cupcake, was still in the cupboard above the kettle. In it, I dropped a teabag, one spoonful of snow-white sugar, hot water. Topped it up with a lick of milk.
I sank into a red bean bag and looked outside through the tall, glass windows. It was dark still, but the moon gave out enough light for me to see a bunch of smooth pebbles by the glass door.
I froze. Instinct told me to hide, go low.
Then — a crash.
One more stone hit, pinged, flew. I couldn’t see anyone at first. I stood up like the hairs on my back.
A translucent figure hovered at the edge of the library’s garden. Music, slow and steady, surrounded everything like a river flow. Its smile was wide and pleading, unruly hair in all directions, belly overhanging. It swayed awkwardly, arrhythmically.
I knew what it was then. I remembered that story.
“Over my old dead body, Homen!” I shouted.
I pulled together the bookshelves with all my might, one after another. Children’s fiction, young adult, and graphic novels. Science and history were harder to budge, but I managed. A tall rack of Mills and Boon was what it took to block Homen’s view of me completely. Once he can’t see you, he forgets. Granny said so.
The music stopped.
“Oh, deary me, love. What happened here?”
I opened my eyes to daylight. Three of my former colleagues were standing above me — a protective coven. Their masks covered their noses.
“Let us make you a fresh cuppa, shall we?” offered the first.
“We’ve heard about your gran,” whispered the second.
“It’s okay, love. Let’s tidy this up,” said the third. She reached her arm out to me and hoisted me up.
Overnight, snow had fallen, covering the Homen’s pebbles. Its footsteps mere puddles. Between shelves — my empty nest, breadcrumbs.
Gosia Buzzanca is a Polish-born writer based in South Wales.
Homen is a character from an old Polish folk legend about a Plague-Omen.