The school breathed in before it spit us out. We streamed out the side door, through a crowd of parents waiting for their kids. As the flood of students moved through the crowd, the group got smaller and smaller until only a few of us remained in the flow away from the building. At the corner, more kids peeled away – some heading East, some heading West. I continued North toward the library, the crossing guard waving me ahead with her white gloved hands.
My backpack was heavy. I made my way up the small hill, which felt like a mountain on days like today. I passed the yellow house, the green house and the blue house, while cars full of families drove past me up the street. Everyday, while they made their way home, I made my way to the library where I spent the afternoons.
Once I could see the paw-print shape of the red leaves on the trees, I knew I was close to the path. I closed my eyes and counted 87 steps, opened my eyes and the front doors of the library swung open. I waved as I passed the librarians and the staff behind the circulation desk. I cast a wistful glance at the thousands of books in the adult section that I was planning on reading every single one of, then made my way to the children’s room at the back.
I sat down on one of the beanbag chairs and looked around for the nearest book. I was within arm’s reach of the New Book Shelf, so I grabbed the closest book and examined it. It was a book on Horses in Medieval Times. I’d loved Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague and My Friend Flicka, so I opened it up and dove in.
Medieval Times were kind of interesting but the book was a little bit dry, so I read it quickly, skimming it for interesting facts. I learned that a ferrier is someone who takes care of horses’ feet. Once I made it to the end, I slammed the book shut like I was spiking a ball. Another book down.
I was about to pick up another one when Ms. Derrida passed by and said hello. Ms. Derrida wore cat-eye glasses and cardigan sweaters over blouses with Peter Pan collars. Her grey hair was short like a flapper from the 1920s and she wore a different color of lipstick everyday. She had worked at this branch of the library for longer than anyone. Adults were always turning up to talk to her about when they were children in her library. She seemed to know everything about everything.
“Is my Dad here?” I asked her. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I saw the Bookmobile leave about an hour ago. Is your mom picking you up later?”
“No,” I said, “she’s on a trip to Ecuador for her job.”
“Ah,” said Ms. Derrida, “then I expect your dad will make sure to be back by five today.”
“Yeah,” I said and picked up the next book. It was a book about trains that I’d read a few days ago, so I put it back and was reaching for another one when I noticed Jelissa coming toward me. She vaulted across the room and sprawled across the beanbag chair next to me.
“Hey Leandra,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” I said.
“You wanna play?”
“Maybe,” I said.
I mean, I did want to play but I also really wanted to read.
“The other kids are outside. You wanna come out?”
I didn’t really. But my parents were always suggesting I go outside and I knew later I might be wishing I had someone to play with. So I left behind the books and followed Jelissa out the front doors and around to the back of the library. She was older than me (like most of the kids who hung out at the library after school) and she wore a sweatshirt every day no matter what.
There was a narrow stretch of grass and trees between a tall brick wall and the library’s outside wall. It was a spot the grown-ups never thought about but it was our usual place to play. When we arrived, Becky was pouring water into a bucket she’d found. Becky was into horses and she rode them and mucked out their stables so she didn’t mind getting dirty.
“Would you like some mud soup?” she asked.
It was a brown gloppy mess, full of pebbles and sticks. I pretended to taste it.
“Mmm,” I said. “Delicious.”
“No,” said Becky sternly, “really eat it. Don’t pretend.”
Becky seemed to enjoy making me uncomfortable. She loved to make me do things I did not want to do. Sometimes I gave in because it was easier than arguing with her but this time I thought quickly.
“It needs something,” I said and bent down to pick some of the red berries that grew along the wall.
“Ooooh,” said Becky. “Throw them in.”
Demetrius sat on a stump nearby, watching the soup creation. Demetrius was a big baseball fan. As soon as he got out of school, he’d put on his baseball cap and wouldn’t take it off until school the next day. He said he slept in it, too.
“Where’s my soup?” he demanded, bringing his fist down onto his thigh, pretending to be the king of our library kingdom. We’d invented Libraridom during the summer and Demetrius had declared himself king. I was usually the court jester or the royal librarian and Becky liked to play the royal chef.
“It’s coming, Your Majesty,” said Becky, picking up the bucket and bringing it toward him.
Thankfully, it looked like today would not be the day I’d have to eat mud.
Svetlana was leaning on the wall next to Demetrius, winding her long blonde hair around her index finger. She usually played the Queen in the Libraridom games but she really only ever talked about what kind of gown the Queen would wear. She wouldn’t even let us make her a leaf crown.
“I hate pretend games,” she said. “Can’t we do something fun?”
Svetlana was so ready to be a teenager. She was always checking herself out in mirrors, or windows, or reflective sheets of metal. I don’t know what she thought her hair was going to do when she wasn’t looking at it but it clearly demanded her attention every other minute.
I said, “I know where there are cherries. I’ll go get them for everyone.”
Svetlana rolled her eyes but Jelissa looked excited, so I ran around the corner and across the parking lot to the cherry trees. I picked as many as I could carry, then ran back to the group. As I arrived, all the kids rushed out at once, racing out and across the parking lot. They ran by me so fast, they almost knocked me down. I sat down on the curb and watched them run to the opposite end of the parking lot.
Jelissa ran back toward me and shouted, “Come on, Leandra. We’re going to play tag.” “That’s okay,” I said and ate a cherry. It made my eyes water, it was so sour.
“What, are you scared?” shouted Demetrius, as he sped by.
“No,” I said. “I’m eating cherries.”
But he was already gone.
When Svetlana ran past, she stuck out her tongue. I was starting to feel very anxious. I just wished I were back on the beanbag chair upstairs. Maybe I’d never leave the Children’s room again.
Then suddenly, a pinecone came flying at me and hit me right above the eye. I looked up and saw Becky standing there laughing. Then she put her hand to her mouth and dramatically said, “Oops!”
I immediately started to cry but I didn’t want anyone to see so I just got up, my arms still full of cherries, and ran back into the library. I went straight into the back corner of the Children’s room, right behind the shelves that were for re-shelving. There was a cart there that I could just about fit onto the bottom shelf of – so I climbed on to it and hung my jacket across the front so no one could find me.
I heard them all come in to the library. They’d never learned the rule about being quiet in a library so I could hear them at the front door and then come into the Children’s room. I heard them look for me and then they gave up and left. When it sounded like the coast was clear, I came out and looked at the clock. It was 4:15. I grabbed my backpack, put the cherries in my pencil case and wondered how to spend the next 45 minutes until my Dad would be done with work and ready to take me home. I thought about drawing with the craft supplies or playing with the stuffed animals. But if any of the other kids got cold out there, they’d come back in and I didn’t want to see any of them ever again.
Because my dad worked here, I knew the library better than anyone, so there were plenty of places I could go where the other kids would never find me. And there wasn’t just the upstairs with the shelves of books and checkout desks and reference desks and a staff room for the librarians –no, downstairs, were some offices, a conference room, a giant meeting room that we sometimes watched movies in and a storeroom for the booksale that the library held a few times a year. The garage for the bookmobile was next door to the storeroom so my Dad often moved books into the bookmobile from there.
There were times when the library was closed that we went through the whole library – me and my Dad, looking at all the books, “Making sure everything’s okay” as my dad would say. He’d repair the broken ones in the storeroom. “Are you a librarian?” I’d asked him once.
“I’m a caretaker of books,” he said.
I technically wasn’t supposed to go downstairs. I’d been scolded before by several of the staff members about roaming around down there but I felt safer in that storeroom than anywhere else in the library, so I sneaked past the circulation desk and pushed open the door that led downstairs when no one was looking.
In the storeroom, I ran into Mr. Rodriguez, who was picking up a book that had recently been repaired. Mr. Rodriguez was the Reference Librarian. He wore colorful ties and shiny shoes. He sat at a desk in the adult section most of the time, answering grown ups’ questions. He had thick dark hair that he ran his hands through when he thought about things.
“You’re not supposed to be down here, are you?” he asked, stroking his beard.
“No,” I said, looking at the floor, trying not to cry again. I was really worried about getting into trouble.
He looked at me carefully and said, “You need a quiet place to read? Is that it, Leandra?”
“You won’t touch anything you’re not supposed to?”
I shook my head.
“I bet your dad will be back very soon, too, won’t he?”
I nodded again.
“Well, I didn’t see you down here. But if I did, I imagine I might find you reading in that comfortable old chair over there, wouldn’t I?”
I nodded with more enthusiasm.
“And I think I saw some good fairy tales over there and several novels I’d recommend over on that shelf there” he said, “Not that you’d be reading down here or anything.”
I shook my head and smiled.
“Good,” he said,” Well, it was nice not seeing you.”
And he headed upstairs with his book.
The pea-green chair was a cozy one. It used to be upstairs in the children’s room until it got a stain on it that they couldn’t remove, so they brought it down here. It had always been a good reading spot for me so I curled up in it with the novel I'd pulled off the shelf that Mr. Rodriguez had recommended.
I’d read several chapters when I heard the sound of the garage door opening, which was the first sign that the bookmobile had returned with my dad. I put the book on the table next to the chair and went to watch the big blue bus roll into the garage. My Dad hopped out and gave me a big hug.
“What are you doing down here?” he asked. “Did all the other kids go home?”
I shrugged. “Well, it’s a nice surprise to get a welcome from my favorite girl. I’m just going to make sure this stack of books get into the right place and then we can go on home. Sound good?”
I nodded and went to get my backpack.