Charles Booker extended a hand and smiled. “Char,” he said and shook the now-outstretched hand of the lad at the coconut shy. Unlike the garish carnival colors clashing around him, the man inside the stand was easily monochrome: A dark almost see-through shirt over his tanned skin, prominent features, bright eyes.
Of course, the coconuts were milk jugs, but to Charles it didn’t matter.
“Have it a try again, Char?” the tender said, tossing a baseball from hand to hand, flexing thick arms covered in a thin layer of sweat and humidity that glinted in the night’s glow.
“Why not?” Charles said, dishing out another dollar in exchange for the ball. He bounced it in his hand for a moment, weighing it, calculating. Then he lobbed it at the milk jugs, and hit not a single one of them.
“Too bad,” the man said with a grin.
“I just can’t seem to get it,” Char said, “but maybe”—he raised his eyebrows—“someone could teach me?”
The man smiled, almost nodding. “I—”
Charles ignored the small voice and leaned closer. “You…?”
“What?” he yelled, turning on his little sister.
“The page is about to turn.”
“Crap.” He looked around, trying to judge in a moment where the story was headed. The sky seemed reasonably seamless straight above, and the surroundings weren’t shimmering…
“They went inside,” his sister said.
Charles knew at once where to go. He grabbed his little sister’s hand and pulled her after him so fast she looked like a doll flopping behind him as he ran. Two turns and—yes!—they made it to the core of the carnival: the red- and yellow-striped circus tent that earlier had looked imposing, but now looked unreal as it began to shimmer and glow.
Right at the entrance a great white light was growing, and in a moment it became a blank wall of incandescence as Charles and his sister ran toward it. The world began to flatten around them and fold in upon itself, the tent’s opening distorting itself as it collapsed sideways.
“Jump!” Charles yelled as he pushed off the ground, his little sister right behind him, and twisted himself toward the closing plot hole.
Then they were back in the library, sitting around an open book just as they had been before.
“It’s dangerous to read with you, Allison.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You were the one who started flirting with the side characters.”
“I was not flirting!”
Allison narrowed her eyes, which behind her large round glasses and framed by her wild red hair, was not as imposing as she probably wanted it to be. “But maybe,” she quoted, “somebody could teach me.”
Allison stuck out her tongue.
“You’re so immature,” he said.
“I’m nine. What’s your excuse?”
At thirteen, Charles knew he had none, so he stood up and crossed his arms. “I’m gonna go find something for me to read. Stay here, okay?”
Allison mimicked his posture and blinked at him. “Where else would I go?”
“I don’t know,” Charles said, starting to feel exasperated, “but Mom would kill me if I lose you, so just behave, okay?”
“Okay,” she said and flashed a big, toothy smile. “I’ll behave.”
Charles glared down at her for a moment, thought better of bickering, and stormed off into the library. The children’s level was bright and colorful with yellow carpeting and red polka dots and murals painted on the walls up past the ceilings. To him, however, it was gaudy. It was trite. It was exhausting to be around.
He released a sigh of relief when he got to the regal staircase of marble steps and brass railings. It twisted up to the main level, then swung through a circular alcove up toward the next floor—fiction, Charles mused, one of his favorite places to idle in, wandering from story to story, cover to cover, tagline to tagline—and then, at last, to the nonfiction floor all the way at the very top.
The relatively dark staircase opened outwards into a massive menagerie of fossilized dragons and basilisks, which to the naked eye looked like no more than old metal bookcases piled high with old paper books. Charles knew better, however, that all these shelves were sentinels guarding the library’s greatest treasure. Not a book, not an artifact, not even a newspaper clipping of some famous happening of personal importance.
No. The library’s greatest treasure was none of that.
Charles stopped walking so heavily, realizing only now that he had been trudging up the stairs all along. Now he almost tiptoed toward the tall aisles until their gaping mouths overwhelmed him and swallowed him whole. The fluorescent suns shining above were dwarfed to mere shadows in these breadths, but Charles pressed on.
He sidled through psychology and plunged quickly past professional plumbing before halting near homicides. This aisle always made him shudder, so he shuddered, and reminded himself that it was the surest way to glimpse the treasure deeper within.
He went on through windmills and writers, to universes and universities, then finally scaled the side wall, ducking beneath windows, until he emerged between anthills and antinomy, not to be confused with antimony, one aisle over. (The width of the library’s reference selection, not merely in its physical understandings, never could cease to amaze Charles, and if not for the prospect of the treasure soon before him, he would have soon been lost amidst the living encyclopedia all around him.)
Inching upwards, almost crouching; glancing both ways and dashing across the walkway; until he found himself settled in biographies. He ran his fingers down the spines of the tomes to his right, as if an offering of good fortune to the sleeping dragon he perched against, and finally between Beethoven and Bach, he stopped.
There was a most unusual gap between the two composers, as if formed by a longstanding feud that kept the two apart (of which Charles ultimately would know nothing, as this was the closest he ever came to knowing the composers, and in this instant every evening, his mind was not upon either of them, but upon the treasure that dwelled in the library’s heart), and it was beside this window that Charles now settled himself.
His breath came in slow, heavy cycles, partly from his exhaustion in getting so far unnoticed, and partly in anticipation. So far, the view of the library’s royal chamber was bland and as expected: The king was in his typical throne, waiting for his subjects to approach, and the queen was nearby at her palantir, but Charles knew to most it would merely look as if the reference personnel were doing their daily doings, the one at her computer.
He held his breath as he heard the squeaking tires of the cart being wheeled toward the reference desk. He rose slightly for a better vantage, knowing soon, so soon, the library’s greatest treasure would come into view. He could see the metal edge of the cart—so soon, he breathed, so very soon!—and then he could see it: The dashing page pushing the cart along, his hair in a tussle, dark and average as any man’s, but on him, beautiful.
(Charles secretly knew that this young soul, of age no greater than his own, was not merely just another page in the kingdom, neither servant nor squanderer, but indeed was the sole heir of the high throne, albeit his lineage had been hidden at birth and even he did not know his own destiny. Charles was certain to tell him, should they ever meet.)
At this point most evenings, the lad would lead his cart toward the reference desk and slowly stack the returned books, a most delightful display of his physique and daring smile, as if already knowing his fate without being aware of such, but today, he did not veer from his course, or stop, or do anything other than keep going.
Right toward Charles.
When he realized this, Charles ducked out of biography, rolled one aisle over to biology, shot through carpentry and criminology, and then into a small copse of armchairs next to the newspaper stands. Sight of the library’s treasure now hidden, he ruefully grabbed the first paper he could reach, plopped into one of the aforesaid chairs, and then opened to a page at random. Obituaries.
No sooner, he found himself standing in a cemetery.
What is the difference, he wondered, between a cemetery and a graveyard?
He had no time to ponder this as Allison came into view, glasses bright and red hair flaring. “You’re late,” she said, shoving the face of her watch toward him, even though he couldn’t make out a thing it said all things considered. “You should’ve been back down there ten minutes ago. But that’s okay. Mom’s going to be late anyways.”
“What makes you say that?” Putting the paper away, they were back in the library.
“The fortune teller at the circus.”
He snorted. “So you think the predictions of a fictional character are gonna come true?”
She shrugged. “You were flirting with one, so—”
“I was not flirting!” He had to restrain himself to keep from yelling it any louder a second time. “Come on, we need to go anyways.”
“Fine, if you want to,” Allison said, and her tone kept Charles where he was. “She also said a prince would learn his destiny tonight, but who knows what she meant by that.”
The observational prowess of his sister often made him speechless, and some such instance was this, although on occasion he wondered if the fiction she delved into truly was as factual as she made it out to be, and if so, what implications that had for his conceptualization of reality. But right now, it did not matter.
He could hear the familiar squeaking and knew the hidden heir was on his way back.
“So?” Allison said. “Are you just going to stand there?”
Charles rolled his eyes, but relented nonetheless and walked after the unknowing page.
Of course, one thing the fortune teller had failed to pass along was what to say—so when the two, about to run into each other, stopped walking, Charles said what he always said (at least in the storybooks he’d happened upon, in any case): “Hi, I’m Char.”
The page looked confused for a moment, eyes squinched together, then smiled a little. “I’m Cody,” he said slowly, reaching out to shake Charles’ hand, “nice to meet you.”
Charles nervousness blossomed into a large grin. “Nice to meet you, Cody.”
“Well, um,” Cody said, still talking slowly, “I really do have to shelve these…”
Charles nodded, moving out of the way as Cody started moving with the cart again. And stood there. And watched him going further…further…further…
“You know,” he said, stepping up to Cody again, but this time walking with him, “these shelves are really dragons.”
Cody stopped walking and looked at him, one eyebrow higher than the other. “Really?”
“It’s true,” Charles said, “but most people don’t realize it; they just look like ordinary shelves to them. And you—” He stopped suddenly.
Cody’s look of uncertainty had thickened to both eyebrows now. “And me…?”
Charles blushed, but it all spilled out anyways. “You’re the prince, heir to the whole kingdom. That’s why they don’t bite you—they’re all yours.”
Cody laughed, not a disheartening laugh, however, but a welcoming light one. And as he started carting the books away once more, he looked over his shoulder at Charles and smiled. “You know, you’re quite imaginative, Char.”
“Always,” he said. “I read a lot.”
“Me too,” Cody said as they both turned down another aisle and stopped to start shelving books together. “So…” He placed a volume of derivatives on the shelf and grabbed another on delicatessens. “Come here often?”
“Cool,” Cody said, pushing the cart down the aisle and shelving a tome of dinosaurs. “If you’re not busy…it’d be cool to have someone to talk to for a bit every day.” They turned down the next aisle, the stack of books getting thinner. “I mean, the library can get pretty lonely returning books by yourself.”
Charles smiled, about to say something when they both grabbed for the same book and laughed instead. Charles held to it tight, so Cody let go, and as he shelved it, ran the title through his mind: Elephants in Africa.
And suddenly he was in the savannah, and when he looked up so was Cody—looking fearful and dumbfounded all at once—and just behind him, he noticed, was Allison.
“Mom’s here,” she said, and Charles quickly let go of the book, causing the image to vanish as suddenly as it had come, placing them back in the library with the book safely on the shelf. Cody, once more on the other side of the cart, blinked wildly and upon seeing how nonchalant the other two were, took on an expression that suggested he thought he had imagined the whole thing entirely of himself.
“Guess I’ve gotta go,” Charles said, this time to Cody.
“Well it was nice meeting you,” Cody answered, seemingly setting the experience aside. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“Probably. I’ll stop by if I am.”
“I’d like that.” Cody smiled and put out his hand for Charles to shake once more; he happily obliged, and then—under the thick gaze of his little sister—he began to leave.
When they reached the stairs, Allison said, “Charlie, you were flirting again.”
He scowled. “I was not!”