Oscar stood in the atrium of the central branch of the city library. It was midnight and the only illumination came from amber lights along the walls and the red Exit signs, creating a surreal glow. Oscar inhaled the slight musty scent of books, which was his favourite aroma. As a child, he had lived a block away from this library and visited daily. It didn’t matter here that his clothes were second-hand or that his shoes had holes in them. In the library he felt rich. He would run his fingers along the multicoloured spines of the books, knowing he could read as many as he liked.
The giggle of a child echoed eerily through the deserted building. The library was known to be haunted. For decades, all manner of mischief had been reported, especially in the children’s section where books that had been shelved by library staff were rearranged or left open on tables. Night janitors reported bumps and thumps and a child’s voice.
The giggle came again.
“Maria,” he called. “Is that you?”
No answer. He remembered that children’s books had been on the second floor. Once there, he saw the child-size seats.
“Maria, it’s Oscar,” he called. “I used to visit you when I was a kid.”
Seconds passed. Then he heard a noise, and a moment later something flew towards his head. He ducked and it went past him and clattered to the floor. A metal bookend.
“Maria,” he said, “is that you? Why throw something at me?”
A girl’s voice answered, “You left and never said goodbye.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had to go to hospital. When I got out, my mother took me to live with my aunt in another city. I felt bad that I couldn’t visit you before we left.”
A pause, but no more missiles. “You saw me,” she said. “Nobody sees me.” The voice was mournful.
“I may have seen you because I was sickly,” he said. “I had a hole in my heart and almost died.”
A girl about eight years old appeared in front of him, with a book tucked under her arm. He felt a rush of affection for her. She looked small from his adult height, but otherwise she was exactly like he remembered. She had brown eyes under glasses, and her dark hair was tied in a ponytail on each side of her head. Her faded plaid dress ended just above her knees and had a rounded collar in 1960s style because that was when she had died. She looked solid, but she was floating a few inches above the floor.
“I wish you had died in the library,” she said. “You could have haunted this place with me.”
He smiled. “I would have liked that. I missed you, Maria. You were my best friend.”
She looked down. “I missed you too,” she said.
“You must get lonely here.”
She lifted the book from under her arm and hugged it to her chest. “I have my books,” she said.
Oscar could see the title: Penelope the Pirate. “I remember play-acting that with you,” he said, smiling. “You always played Penelope, and I was Captain Scurvy.”
The corners of Maria’s lips curved upwards.
“May I see it?” he asked.
She hesitated, then gave him the book. The worn cover was stamped “withdrawn from collection.”
“I took it out of the disposal cart,” she said. “I hate when they get rid of my favourite books.”
Oscar handed it back. Now that he was closer to her, he noticed the tattered state of her dress, and the thinness of her arms and legs. Worse, there were fading bruises at the edges of her left cheek and temple. He remembered seeing the dark smudges before, but he had never questioned her.
“Why did you come back?” she asked. “You must be forty.”
He winced. “I’m twenty-three.”
She shrugged. “A grownup. How did you die?”
He shuffled his feet, which were not quite touching the floor. “I was a student doctor,” he said. “After a long shift, I fell asleep driving home and hit a pole.”
“That’s too bad,” she said. “I had a boring death too. Pneumonia. Although I think I told you that I died in a plane crash.”
He laughed. “You told me many things.”
“You have a nice laugh, Oscar,” she said. “Reminds me of when you were a kid.”
“Thank you.” He smiled at her. “Tell me, do you ever see a door in the ceiling?”
Maria looked away, hunching over. “I don’t like it.”
“What if I told you there are libraries on the other side? Libraries as tall as skyscrapers that go on for blocks. Libraries where you can find any book at all, and they never go out of circulation.”
“How do you know that?” she asked, straightening a little.
“I’ve been there.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Really? Why did you come back?”
“For you,” he said. “I couldn’t be happy knowing you were still here alone.”
“But I’m an orphan,” she said, blinking. “I don’t have anyone on the other side.”
“You will have me. And there are children for you to play with.”
Her eyes brightened and the corners of her mouth twitched up, but then her expression grew wary. “Will the nuns from the orphanage be there?”
Oscar looked at the bruises on her face, and his lips tightened. “Maria, nobody will hurt you again, I promise.”
She gazed intently at him, then nodded. “What about this?” she asked, holding out her book.
“There are copies on the other side.”
“But I want this copy.”
“Then bring it.”
She smiled fully for the first time. She clutched the battered book with one hand and took Oscar’s hand with the other. They floated up to the door that had appeared in the ceiling.
“Are there really libraries in Heaven?” Maria asked.
“Of course. It would not be Heaven without them.”
And they went through the door.
Lauryn Mercredi lives with her husband and two cats in Vancouver, Canada. She loves reading books and stories in all genres. Her favourite places include carnivals, libraries and trains.