It was dark inside the public library. The floor boards creaked as Chelsea walked from shelf to shelf. Finally, she stopped before the “Literature” section. She squinted her eyes so she could read the titles more clearly (she lost her first pair of glasses in an Uber car back in Cebu, her second pair at the ship on her way to Tacloban, and her third pair back at the hotel). She picked up a couple of paperbacks from the shelf and examined them closely. Their covers were dusty and stiff.
She opened up a collection of stories by Kafka. Immediately there arose a musty smell — old vanilla and rice. She lifted the book to her nose so she could inhale the scent deeply. She then browsed through its pages to see if any of the stories looked familiar. Some of them were. She read excerpts here and there and scenes from her college life flashed in her mind — some of them happy, some of them sad. She realized that this is one of the reasons why she fell in love with existentialist literature in the first place: the stories were so absurd and depressing that they made real life happier and more meaningful.
I must bring these home, she thought.
She climbed down the stairs and looked for a librarian. A man was sitting behind a desk at the far end of the room. She approached him. A label was sitting on top of the table: “Frederick Herrera, Sr., Librarian”. He did not fit her image of a librarian. He was young, dressed somewhat fashionably, and looked more like a model than a bookworm. He was reading a copy of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking up from his book. “Can I help you?”
“Um, er, eh,” she stammered. She had the words in her mind but couldn’t quite speak them out loud.
Finally, she began, “Uh, yeah. About these books…”
He glanced at the books she was carrying.
“Can I take them out? I mean, can I borrow them?” she said.
“Well,” he said. “They are really old, you know. They were donated decades ago, many as far back as the 30s and 40s. So…”
“I’ll take care of them, I promise,” she said. “It’s just that, I just love these titles and they are extremely hard to find in bookshops, and it just saddens me that they are just rotting here — I’m sorry, no offense — in the library with no one borrowing or reading them. The last time this book was checked out, for example, was 1987!”
“I mean, are there rules against borrowing these books?” she said.
“Not really,” he said. “You know what, for a pretty girl like you, I say, take them home with you. You can return them whenever you want.”
“So I can borrow them?”
“Borrow them, own them, pass them on to others. I don’t mind. What’s important is that they’re read and talked about. And you look like the kind of person who loves to read and talk about books.”
“Woah, thank you so much, Mr…”
“Erick. Just call me Erick. Erick, Jr. Erick Sr.’s my dad. He’s on sick leave so I’m covering for him.”
“So you’re not the librarian?”
“So you don’t have the authority to allow these books to be brought out…”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll explain it to my dad. Just promise me you won’t tell anyone about this. I’m kind of bending the rules for you.”
“Can I get more?” she said, her eyes wide with excitement. “There’s plenty more upstairs.”
“You know what,” he said, “Take as many as you want. Take as many as your bag can carry.” He laughed.
And she did. She ran upstairs and took as many books as her hands and arms could carry: titles by Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, de Beauvoir.
She shoved them in her backpack. The rest she piled against her chest. She went back downstairs and nodded at Erick. She wanted to wave. He waved and smiled.
She stood for a moment outside the library. The sun was just setting behind the buildings in Tacloban. A few pedestrians stared at her as they passed her by. She turned around to check whether Erick was following her, but was shocked to see that the door was covered with old boards and plywood, and a hand-painted “Closed” sign hung on where the door knob used to be.